July 9, 2020 – A recent survey about workstyle preferences generated tremendous news for the commercial real estate development community, according to Diane Hoskins, co-CEO of Gensler. Among participants in the survey which was conducted in April and May, only 12% of employees indicated the preference to work from home on a full-time basis in the future.

“The pandemic forced nearly everyone to retreat home but, as time goes on, employees are missing many things that simply cannot be replaced with Zoom teleconference calls and other technology,” Hoskins explained in a webinar hosted by Bisnow. “They universally value face-to-face interaction with fellow employees and the impromptu and non-specific conversations that occur throughout the day. Despite the perception, many workers stated that they felt less productive working from home. Generation Z and Millennials, which comprise 50% of the workforce at certain companies, were less satisfied overall when teleworking, missed interaction with mentors and experienced a sense of being overlooked by the company.”

More than 65 million people work in an office environment in the United States and the Gensler survey illuminates that many have experienced frustration and isolation during the pandemic.

Hoskins, however, recognizes that the office environment is about to move into a “highly protective mode designed to prevent and mitigate all exposure to the contagion.” Although every building and office space provides unique challenges, Hoskins estimates a median price of $5 per square foot in retrofits to improve internal environments.

“Our philosophy in dealing with the virus from a design perspective is to prevent, detect, mitigate and extinguish – in the same manner in which companies deal with fire safety… This begins at the entrance of the building and the lobby and immediately extends to the elevator. We believe companies will install as many touchless technologies as possible. The fire stair will also be a key component to the solution especially for offices situated on the lower floors. One set of stairs might be designated for employees to take a flight up, with the other reserved to walk down to reduce the number of times people cross paths.”

Hoskins explained that the accepted six-foot separation distance has been extended to nine feet by Gensler to account for office chair movements.  Get used to seeing large sheets of plexiglass incorporated into office designs to “break up the horizontal movement of air” within the workspace. For those companies that have access to outdoor areas, they should be encouraged to “leverage those areas to create collaborative spaces.” 

“Quite simply, we need to spread out and work on de-densification plans that allow for more than 50% more space across the board,” Hoskins added. “Companies will not be able to communicate enough with the use of stickers, decals and signage that properly explain accepted workspace flow and the rules for using the bathrooms and kitchen.”

In Gensler’s recent research, the concept of office sharing was not warmly embraced, “as workers strive for greater control and understanding of their specific workplace,” she said. “This is not possible when there are great unknowns about the health and well-being of people that use your desk every other day.”

Employers have other fundamental reasons to find ways to safely reopen offices during the pandemic.

“Working within an office environment is an essential component to the way companies operate, and this interaction extends beyond the four walls with the creation of a corporate culture,” Hoskins said. “Among the most important lessons learned during this pandemic is the critical need to value and take care of employees. Making them feel safe and comfortable will always be a significant consideration in their decision to return to the office.”