Forbes | March 29, 2021 by Jeffrey Steele
A Conference Board survey released last month found considerable uncertainty about how workers will return to the office. As the pandemic neared its one-year anniversary, 44% of survey respondents reported plans for returning to the office or worksite were unknown to them, a figure significantly higher than the September survey’s 37%.
Also last month, real estate data company Clever shared research indicating just 20% of U.S. workers would feel safe working in an office. Some 56% of workers reported they feel their companies are not undertaking appropriate Covid-19 safety measures.
Some of the uncertainty and concern may be erased as employers endeavor to make their offices as safe for returns as possible. They are gaining help toward that goal from building developers, owners and operators, office designers, technology companies and others doing their part to support healthful environments for employees.
Drive to Desk
A case in point is the creation by Building and Land Technology (BLT) of a pandemic-resistant prototype office of the future in Stamford, Ct. Working with global design firm Gensler, BLT has redesigned 1 Elmcroft, its corporate headquarters, from the ground up. Responding to the finding that parking is a highly-sought amenity among hybrid workers, BLT has created a “drive-to-desk” model. It enables workers to avoid public transit by motoring to work and parking on the same level where they work, sidestepping elevators and other potential cross-contamination threats.
Elsewhere, a visitor-friendly conference room in the 1 Elmcroft lobby enables people from outside the office to enter for meetings with one or a few employees without invading floors full of workers. “Our plans for the office of the future will focus on key priorities that will continue to be relevant in the post-pandemic world,” BLT co-president Michael Handler says. “For health and wellness, air quality and sanitization features will be foundational to creating a pandemic-resistant office.
“Structurally, windows will be operable, yet safe, ushering in fresher air and improving air flow naturally. The air quality measures installed at 1 Elmcroft exceed new OSHA air-quality guidelines released in November 2020.”
Flexibility has also been prioritized at 1 Elmcroft, where three distinct self-contained workspaces of approximately 100,000 square feet each can accommodate both a Covid-era layout and a post-pandemic floor plan. “A de-densified layout accounts for all the precautions we’ve intimately come to know, [such as] greater spacing, increased air flow, separate entrances and exits,” and more, Handler says. “The post-pandemic accommodation allows employers to reintroduce greater numbers of employees, while still maintaining several pandemic-era features [now] part of our everyday lives.”
Covid-19 has taught the world of office design a square peg can’t be forced into a round hole, Handler concludes. “One really needs to evolve their concept of retrofitting to envision a blank canvas,” he points out.
“As such, we had to reimagine the building from the ground up to meet our new standards for health and wellness, transit and traffic and much needed flexibility.”
Better than home
Meantime, the team at Architecture Plus Information (A+I) has conducted more than three dozen interviews with its clients, coming away with the finding offices with row upon row of desks for focused work offer less value to post-pandemic workplaces than collaborative settings where employee meetings and teamwork can take place.
Most employers want flexible offices with comfortable places for colleagues to team up, and widely varied options in technology, connectivity, food and beverage. The result: A workplace functioning like home offices have over the past year, only more efficiently.
A+I recently collaborated with a media company and broadcaster to create a focal point for television and digital content by pulling studio space into the office. “This will radically reduce the number of fixed desks by two-thirds,” says Peter Knutson, chief strategy officer for A+I. “But [it will] increase the ability to host clusters of meetings at the same time, drawing employees in and around productions and giving them the flexibility to be either at work or elsewhere to do the bulk of the rest of their jobs.
“We’re also working with a large, multinational advertising agency to build a new type of creative space. It’s a full floor of various collaborative clusters interspersed with places to retreat in order to further concentrate or refine ideas.”
According to Eddie Hall, project architect and senior associate with MBH Architects, “free address” workspaces may be part of the solution in ensuring workplaces feel more comfortable for staff. “Workers favoring unassigned seating need the same functionality and connectivity as when they are at their desk or in a meeting room,” Hall says. “Lighting, acoustics, power, data, all come into play for free address workers. The infrastructure can and should be different in different spaces, but all need to work. The free address workspace is all about having options. If an employee wants to work in an open collaborative space, or a one-on-one banquette, the fun part is making each space have its own look and feel.”
Recognized for Wellness
The quest to provide safer offices has led to awards and recognitions. For instance, Savanna, has captured for its 7 million square foot New York City property portfolio the WELL Health Safety Rating, an evidence-based, third-party verified rating for all new and existing building and space types, focused on the seven core areas of air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. Savanna developed tailored re-entry plans for each property, and after Covid’s onset undertook physical alterations to its structures that addressed tenants’ evolving needs.
Upgrades included touchless building entry, smartphone linked turnstiles, destination-dispatch elevators, HVAC system bi-polar ionization technology, ultraviolet germicidal irradiation, enhanced filtration and increased ventilation rates, among others.
Dedicated outdoor air
As Savanna has acknowledged its award-winning efforts, air quality is a top priority of those hoping to lure office staffs back to the workplace. That’s a problem for many buildings. For instance, in New York City, a very small percentage of buildings are equipped with Dedicated Outdoor Air Systems (DOAS), which deliver fresh, purified outdoor air pulled in from tops of buildings and then distributed throughout towers.
Buildings with DOAS have 30 % more fresh air that those without the systems, while also delivering other advantages such as enhanced temperature control and heightened productivity. New York’s landmark commercial tower 550 Madison is among the first buildings to deploy the DOAS system for multi-tenant use.
It appears necessity remains the mother of invention, and especially so in the Covid era. That innovation could make buildings safer long after the pandemic subsides.