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What Do Distributed Teams Mean for Office Spaces?

Sometimes, events are just too big and disruptive to ever allow life to truly return to the way they were before. The World Wars were two examples. The ripples left behind by the one led to the other, and the demographic shifts, world order and technological advancements we were presented with after both passed defined the course of history. The attacks on 9/11 are another example. Even after the sites were cleared, the perpetrators apprehended and the troops called home, we still find ourselves dealing with the followup effects of that single day. 

For the outbreak of COVID-19, we’re looking at many more than just one day of catastrophe. As the country draws closer and closer to reaching the 100,000 death marker, it’s increasingly clear that even if we quickly identify a vaccine, things won’t be quite the same as they were before. More Americans may regularly wear masks, as is already common throughout Asian countries. Increasing urban density as a trend may falter, if not in terms of where people want to live, in terms of how apartment common areas and retail centers are designed.  

The office space could be suffering from a false sense of security. While the conversation is now widely about how to get back to the office, the spaces people return to will look and be used in very different ways than the offices we left a month or two ago. What’s more, the staggering number of people working remotely at present (Salesforce’s research says 60% of the total workforce throughout the USA, Brazi, Australia and several European countries) represent a paradigm shift for the way managers and teams orient themselves. Indeed, just today Twitter announced it would be allowing workers to stay remote indefinitely. 

People have spent a lot of time asking whether we will return to work or not, but that isn’t the right question to ask. Some people prefer working remotely and some don’t. Some teams and managers are happy to manage remote employees, benefiting from lower overhead expenses; some aren’t. So plenty of us will be returning to work, and plenty of us will be in the office a lot less. The real question is: how will office owners and managers support tenants whose workforces are deeply divided between in-person and remote work arrangements?

This is one of the questions we addressed in our newest research report How tech can help office managers put their properties back to work. We asked dozens of experts and surveyed our reader and we found that property managers should focus not only on making spaces safer and more sanitary but also on communicating the work they are doing to keep spaces safe. Tenants need to know what is happening in their spaces, lest they come to think nothing is being done at all. 

For managers working with tenants spread between different locations, the response to this new, developing work arrangement will not be simple. Tenant expectations will change and the things that differentiate good and bad managers will bend. And the types of spaces tenants look to take out will adapt, too. The typical office these days, whether it is full of private workspaces, a sea of cubicles or an expense of open-plan space, puts individual work first and collaborative work second. 

The U.S. General Service Administration provides a useful benchmarking data source to illustrate this. In research performed in 2012, looking at 38 projects across industries (not only government), the GSA found that no industry allocated even close to as much space for collaboration as for individual work. The industry type with the greatest emphasis on collaborative work, Technology, still had only 29% of space dedicated to collaboration versus 51% meant for individual work. It’s highly unlikely that the past 8 years would have seen these trends flipped, but nonetheless, the emphasis on collaborative spaces has grown with time. 

It could be the coronavirus that flips them. With more workers working out of the office, the baseline demand for individual workstation space will shrink. Perhaps this serves only to reduce the footprint of offices as a whole, but what happens when companies have big meetings, whether for projects, client appointments or simple recurring checkpoint discussions? And what happens when workers who are used to being remote need to come in, whether for those meetings, for confidential assignments or for any other reason? Simply reducing the size of offices would leave companies high and dry in cases like these. 

On the other hand, collaborative spaces can be repurposed into “surge workspace” when the need arises. Think about the main conference room in your own office. The table probably has seating for at least 8-16 people. If your office found itself needing to serve a dozen extra employees temporarily, would it be easier to clear out a dozen cubicles to make a temporary meeting space, or simply stick some modular furniture into the conference room? 

With the risk of contagious diseases now much more apparent to everyone, there’s another clear reason why collaborative, enclosed spaces work so well. Every extra wall provides a bit more built-in social distancing for a given office. Even if it still takes lots of plexiglass to make these spaces safer, starting in a smaller, less-trafficked area is a leg up in terms of safety. 

That in mind, people will need to know how to access these spaces, too. Is the conference a conference room at a given day and time, or is it subdivided into surge workspace for visiting employees? Tenant experience apps can be critical in communicating between managers and employees, but it’ll take deliberate planning, too, across different teams and hierarchies within the same company. Perhaps some ground rules should be set: one conference room, for upwards of a dozen people, should be left in its collaborative state at all times. 

Offices aren’t going anywhere, but the virus outbreak represents a chance to streamline how they look, feel and function. Across industries, everyone isn’t going to work from home forever from now on, yet the multitude of workers who do start spending more time out of the office are a transformational force that only good design and planning can truly account for.

Associate Publisher, Propmodo Research

Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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