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Are you solving for the virus – or for future work?

Drew Thomas
Associate, CBRE,

Good employers have long been leveraging their workplace to compete for top talent, drive collaboration and foster creativity. Pre-COVID-19, the workplace was not merely a location for employees to complete work. The onset of the pandemic left employers writing their own rule book on how to handle employee safety in the workplace and looking to partners, like CBRE, for guidance.

While most companies have reviewed their pre-COVID-19 janitorial practices and adjusted for enhanced cleaning needs – such as deeper cleaning, changing when and how often cleaning occurs, and planning for emergency disinfection – enhanced cleaning practices alone will not make your workplace the safest it can be.

Hadley Cox
First vice president, CBRE,

Working across numerous service lines like property management, project management and workplace strategy, CBRE professionals have pulled together some best practices gathered from buildings and occupier spaces across the globe. Here are a few of the strategies we have discussed with clients to facilitate a safe and productive return to the office and to begin planning for the next iteration of the workplace.

Indoor air quality. Indoor air quality, which has long been the secret weapon of the workplace for top companies, is now more important than ever in light of COVID-19 and outdoor environmental events like the recent wildfires in the Western U.S. Studies have shown that good air quality can improve employee productivity and reduce rates of sick leave.

Hank Cox
Executive vice president,
CBRE, hank.cox@cbre.com

“The benefits of a smart office strategy over a sleepy work-from-home environment are tremendous,” said John Bohlmann, founder of HawkenAQ, a company that manages air quality in buildings throughout North America and Europe. “For a little bit of rent and electricity, you can significantly increase team productivity and improve the health of your most vulnerable employees at the same time.”

It’s a common myth that improving air quality is time intensive and expensive. The truth is it can be done without having to break the bank. “All of our clients are looking for ways to improve air quality without significant capital expense,” said Bohlmann. “Luckily, new technologies are making this achievable, even in the oldest buildings.”

New technologies like bipolar ionization and intelligent building automation are sanitizing the air and enabling improvements in air quality without significant capital outlay. When it comes to investing in building systems, it’s recommended to take a look at your lease to better understand which changes fall under the tenant’s responsibility and which ones should be a landlord’s duty. For instance, some landlords are taking a proactive approach to air quality and already looking into or installing state-of-the-art filtration systems in their buildings.

Rethinking the workplace. Since most leases require time commitment and capital investment, we are helping our clients think through not just reacting to the virus, but proactively solving for the future of work.

In the near-term, the workplace needs to account for less density and re-imagined shared spaces. Some clients are temporarily closing off certain areas or only providing enough seating for occupants to be properly socially distanced in spaces like dining areas and conference rooms. In areas with workstations, we are seeing the addition of temporary and permanent barriers, such as screens, to create boundaries and help reduce air particle transmission. We also have started to see workplaces use reservation systems to manage capacity as many jurisdictions currently have varying limits on the percentage of space that can be occupied.

Looking to the future, the office is not going away, but the role of the office will change as we emerge from this crisis. Working from home has proven that employees are ready for more autonomy, but also it has made the benefits of being together in a physical environment painstakingly clear.

Exactly how the future office will look still is being determined, but as the office has become less of a default setting for work it will become more of a tool that employees can deploy in order to accomplish their goals – whether that’s collaborating with colleagues or connecting with clients. We anticipate more remote work to drive an increase in activity-based work in the office. This allows more flexibility in where and how employees work and may result in companies reducing their footprint or converting space to other functions such as collaboration areas or amenities. Other companies may opt for a full private office experience and end up needing more space.

At a high level, the future of the office needs to be a safe environment that fosters collaboration and productivity. It will be a place employees choose to go to access tools and technology, connect with co-workers and work more efficiently. This will look a little different for every company and is a long-term investment, so a thoughtful strategy should be considered before spending significant capital on the next iteration of your workplace.

Featured in CREJ’s December 2020 issue of Office & Industrial Quarterly

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.