Guest Post By Larry Lander, PDR

Although it’s true that many have been working from home for 20 weeks or more, it’s increasingly important to recall lessons and watchwords we learned before March in thinking about how these WFH months will affect office and building design going forward. We’ve been working with landlords and tenants, including many Fortune 100 companies spanning energy, finance, and technology industries, and there is one common thread: in this new normal, the most effective workplace – any workplace – must be human-centric. 

A workplace must work for the people who occupy it. Building owners, landlords, and employers must start with the people who work there in mind. We call this the inside out approach.

Elements and characteristics that we prioritized in February are still important and, in some cases, even more critical.  In the base case, a workplace must always be safe, clean, ergonomic, and healthful. But we believe the spectrum of choices for work will span four broad categories and the traditional office will be only one. The office will have to compete not only with the home, but also with neighborhood hubs and a broader spectrum of “third places” like cafes, coffee shops, schools, and parks.

Our WFH experience has reinforced what we already know about the importance of the workplace as the embodiment of a company’s culture and brand. Employee surveys show that regardless of age, geography, and experience level workers miss the interaction that going to the office allows. 

And now as an overlay on all this, we have early results of our analysis of the “Great Work From Home Experiment” and the numbers prove that WFH is working. In fact, companies are beginning to vote with their feet: at the extreme end, Facebook says you can work at home forever; Google and others have pushed return-to-office dates deep into 2021.

What does this mean for the workplace? It will have to be the most compelling place to be. This is our next normal where the office is now one piece of an ecosystem of places that all ensure safety, create desirable work environments, and promote the why in why our people get together. Below are just a few considerations in the journey of smart workplace design to help transform your organization and ultimately drive business performance.

From the Door to Desk

This new workplace is inextricably linked with the building in which it’s housed.  This tenant experience – an individual’s perception of whether this is really a compelling experience or not, is completely colored by the entire process from arrival to getting to the tenant space.  Companies that endeavor to truly create this human-centric experience must work closely with building owners and developers as well as designers to think through the entire journey that begins with leaving the home through arriving at a desk.  A building’s profile on the skyline, the richness of the lobby’s materials, or the cleverness of the curtainwall details will matter little if it’s cumbersome or downright frightening to get to the building, to get inside, and to get to a particular floor and space.  Imagine a new measure of a truly Class A building that adds a building’s Human Experience to the more traditional markers. Remember: now empowered to choose, people will.

The New Normal

This emphasis on the experience will reemphasize and amplify investments in building amenities.  Expect continued investments in older buildings to bring them up to keep pace with their newer neighbors, and expect new buildings to keep innovating and thinking outside the box. Here are just a few areas where you can and will see changes.

Technology: Touchless technology that seemed like a real luxury back in February is now becoming the standard. Beginning at the building entry and thinking through each door and portal all the way to the tenant space, people will expect to be able to securely but easily travel without touching a door handle, pushing a button, or turning a lever.

The touchless experience will extend to toilet rooms where we are already seeing some of the most significant changes. Imagine entrances and exits without doors not unlike arrangements found in airports and transportation hubs to help people traveling with bags or small children. In offices, this will allow a fully touch-free experience when augmented with flush valves, faucets, soap, and hand drying.

A move to individual, gender-free toilet rooms may also accelerate.  Sensors open doors when rooms are unoccupied and disinfecting UV lights switch off so the room can be safely used. Upon exiting, the room is locked and sanitized for the next occupant.

Transportation: Vertical transportation is one of the most vexing quandaries in this new paradigm, but design solutions are already being studied and tested that may alter, in particular, how tall buildings are organized.  One solution envisions large elevator cabs with greater capacity traveling to sky lobbies with smaller shuttles operating between there and a particular floor. Shorter distances to floors may also be augmented with fire stairs – wider with better materials and lighting to promote use and give real alternatives to elevator rides.

Common areas: The building lobby and these sky lobbies may all be considered neighborhood hubs, the second in our new ecosystem of workplaces. Amenity-rich and designed for both solo work and small groups, imagine a place that augments tenant spaces in the building, creates a landing place for visitors and guests in order to segregate them from private tenant spaces, and is subject to obvious, robust cleaning and sanitizing throughout the day.

Effective workspaces have long been shown to be most effective when they provide a connection to nature, whether a great view or an actual walk in the park. Ready access to effective outdoor spaces can allow real office work on all but the most inhospitable days. Shaded areas that can be heated for cool days and cooled for warm ones will augment both indoor common and individual tenant spaces and promote the notion of outdoor rooms for a wide variety of workspace activities. 

Amenities: Food and drink service may initially be augmented by the landlord, but eventually migrate completely into the purview of the landlord.  The ability to maintain a clearly and obviously sanitized and controlled atmosphere, the chance to provide greater variety and choice, and the way in which food and drink activate the other building amenities will be too great a chance for building landlords to pass up. Tenants may augment this offering with their own; however, we look for many tenants to simply give up that function, use the building offerings for catering and special events, and subsidize employees’ use of the landlord-provided amenities. There may be significant cost savings for a tenant to take advantage of fewer shared areas compared to build-out and maintenance of their own.

Meeting and conference facilities may also evolve in a similar model.  Robust technology offerings, capability for large and small groups, easy reconfigurability of furnishings and even walls, and access to food, drink, and concierge-level service can make the building offering considerably more desirable than what each tenant can provide.

Meeting spaces may also evolve into limited alternatives for childcare particularly for school-age children.  Since we have learned firsthand how closely linked childcare and school are with parents’ ability to do effective work, office buildings may support school systems in ways we haven’t envisioned.  Perhaps a floor of an office building can serve as an alternative to the school building just as the schoolhouse might serve as a third place for office work and link learning and work in an explicit and effective way.

Utilities: Terms and specifications that lived deep in the detail of a lease document are suddenly front and center, so expect attention to engineering systems to take an even more important role. Mechanical systems have already come under some scrutiny as even casual observers now have opinions about filtering specifications, fresh air intake, or they can debate the merits of UV lighting or bipolar ionization. Older buildings can be at a distinct disadvantage in terms of potential complexity and costs with retrofitting existing systems but look for clever solutions as responses to the pandemic evolve.

Passive building systems that contribute to fresh air and more healthful work environments will also be prioritized:  Outdoor workspaces, use of raised access floor for air and data distribution, access to daylight, daylight harvesting, and the importance of views in tenant spaces are all features of desirable and effective workspace we could identify back in February. Now, buildings that are designed around amplifying these features will have a decided advantage. This is thinking from the inside out.

The Future

The workplace is the place for collaboration and teams and promotes collegiality.  The workplace is a place for culture and brand. The workplace is the experience – a human-centered one – from your kitchen door to your desk. The future goes to the bold. The office is not dead. Working in tall buildings is not dead. Long live the office!

Larry Lander is Principal, Director of Programming at PDR.