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'Transition Into Something Different' — How Office Spaces Will Look Different Post COVID-19

Published: Wednesday, August 26, 2020 - 12:29pm
Updated: Thursday, August 27, 2020 - 9:11am
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MARK BRODIE: As many Arizonans continue to work from home during this pandemic, business leaders are thinking about how and when they'll bring their employees back into the office. And those conversations often turn to the physical office spaces themselves. What will they look like? How will people be spaced out? What do you do with common areas like break rooms? To get a sense of how office spaces may be changing going forward, I'm joined by Cheryl Lombard, president and CEO of Valley Partnership — that's a trade association for the real estate development industry — as well as Martha dePlazaola Abbott, an architect and co-managing principal of the Gensler Phoenix office, which provides architectural and design consulting. And Martha, let me start with you on this. Do you think offices going forward will look different than they did even in February and March?

MARTHA DEPLAZAOLA ABBOTT: Oh, absolutely, Mark. I think, you know, we're currently probably in some sort of transition right now. But some folks say that, that we'll basically go back to the way we used to do work, and some folks say that, you know, this is really an event like 9/11 that's really going to change the way we do work moving forward. And one thing we like to talk about is that if we don't use this really as an opportunity to do things differently than we've maybe missed the mark. I think office space will be viewed in a very different way moving forward.

BRODIE: Martha, what kinds of changes are you seeing and anticipating as more and more people start eventually going back to the office?

DEPLAZAOLA ABBOTT: Yeah, so I can give you a couple of examples of clients that we were working with prior to March that were looking at, you know, one client was 200,000 square feet, and another client was 500,000 square feet. And since March, you know, they've rethought the way they're going to come back to the office and what they're actually going to use the office for. So the client that was thinking they needed 500,000 square feet, through a series of analyses and workshops and whatnot, we've determined they actually only need 315,000 square feet because some people will continue to work from home. So really, the way we view and what we use the office for may dramatically change.

BRODIE: Cheryl, it seems like there are a couple different schools of thought about this out there in terms of just the amount of space that, that a company might need. And I think this goes a little bit to Martha's point that there's one school of thought that, in the example she used, companies that had big footprints might just need less space because there will be fewer people in the office, maybe more people working remotely. It seems, though, that there's another school of thought that says, "Yes, though while there might be fewer people in the office, the people that are there will need more space between them. So the footprint might not actually be that much smaller than what it would have been otherwise." Do you have a sense of where companies and businesses in the Valley are thinking on that spectrum?

CHERYL LOMBARD: I think all of it, building on what Martha said, it's really going to be the office is a destination with a purpose. It's not saying that it didn't before, but it's probably going to be, have a time and scope that's a little different. And not everyone's in there at the same time. And I don't think we have a good answer at this point of what it's going to mean. I think our larger corporations that are connected with other offices, they will sort through that first. I think it's going to be tied with how much it costs. How much does it take to repurpose your office space? There is going to be opportunity to probably, when you're up to renew your lease, how you redo that space and what's built into it with your landlord or your developer.

BRODIE: Do you have a sense, Cheryl, of whether or not we're looking at lots of companies that are thinking about this, like is this a conversation that firms are having right now?

LOMBARD: I think they have to. I think there are still, some are still wondering when they're going to come back in their offices. So I think we're at different phases of it. I would say here in the Valley area where we work, many companies are not coming back into the large office spaces until even next year. So they have a little bit more time to think about these things, build in new technology, build in, you know, spacing.

DEPLAZAOLA ABBOTT: You know, I think a lot of it is that, you know, the workplace will become a hybrid environment. I mean, there are myriad studies. In fact, we've, we've completed a workplace study that talks about, you know, how many folks really want to work from home and how many folks, you know, want to be in the office some part of the day. And ultimately, you know, the culture of the office is what's really important to help companies thrive. And so I think what we're finding now, you know, with our own office, we actually moved in the middle of this whole transition, although we're still virtual. You know, we're considering how do we bring people back in and how do we view the office? And what we're finding is that people are really missing that sense of community, that sense of interaction. And I think everyone's getting tired of looking at each other on a screen. So the office will never go away. It's just a matter of what will the office look like. You know, what's that hybrid model going to be moving forward?

BRODIE: Well, Martha, as you talk about maybe a hybrid system going forward, does that mean to you that, for example, offices might have fewer assigned desks or offices and maybe just more workspaces where whoever happens to be in the office that day can work there?

DEPLAZAOLA ABBOTT: Well, that's a really interesting point, Mark. You know, the whole health and wellness component of this is a big one. And when we designed our new office that we haven't moved into yet, we had a free address policy. And what we have found is that people feel more comfortable going to a spot that they know that they've been sitting at, that no one else has been there, even if it gets completely disinfected. So I think what we're going to see is, you know, the whole idea of benching and getting as many people in as you possibly can, that's going to evolve. And, you know, where there was once a free address, I think there may be more of a model of designated seating areas for people.

BRODIE: Cheryl, you've talked about the development of office spaces, and obviously the Valley is known for development. I'm wondering if you think, though, that given some of the changing needs that businesses might have for their physical space, do you think that those will be done in their existing places, like things will be retrofitted? Or do you think there's going to be a demand for a brand new type of space that maybe hasn't been built yet?

LOMBARD: That's a hard one to answer at this point in time. I think people are moving, it seems. They're working from home. We also have the love of being an area where you're downtown. You have other things to do. How and when those come back, I think will build into it. I also think on high rises versus lower buildings, what people feel comfortable with and how those adaptations and how we deal with elevators are worked on. I think all of those things are still being looked at.

BRODIE: Where do you think geographically we might be looking at a different type of setup? You mentioned, for example, high rises, which you tend to see in downtown Phoenix, downtowns of some of the other Valley cities. I mean, do you expect those to still be as hot a commodity as they have been?

LOMBARD: I think people will still go back to them. I think the amenities around those offices as well need to open up, meaning the restaurants and the other activities that people would do either before and after work.

BRODIE: Martha, let me ask you about some of the elements of an office that are not just the place where people work. And I'm thinking specifically of break rooms, water coolers, others shared type things. Do you think that the way that we use those, their — maybe even their existence will be changing as people are not able to necessarily be all that close to each other and want to share things like microwaves and water coolers?

DEPLAZAOLA ABBOTT: Oh, absolutely, Mark. I mean, I think, you know, even, so, I'll use our own office as an example. We have a whole reentry platform and the first and second stage of that reentry include, you know, not using this, you know, wonderful multi-purpose pantry slash kitchen space that we have designed. So, you know, it's going to be very unfortunate. But, yeah, I think all of those things will have to be looked at differently.

BRODIE: And I would imagine that businesses are also thinking about, for example, hallways and stairwells and making sure that there's enough space. And maybe, you know, I've read about some, for example, hallways and staircases being one way, you know, in a staircase sense up or down, and hallways, you go one way and another hallway, you go the other way.

LOMBARD: Absolutely. We're saying that with some of the clients that were looking at reconfiguring their space as well.

BRODIE: Cheryl, for the businesses that are making some of these changes, how permanent do you think they are? Like, do you think businesses are looking at changes that they're needing to make because of the pandemic to get people back in the office as being things that they will want to or have to keep after, you know, the pandemic or at least the worst of it is over?

LOMBARD: I believe so. I think it's a culture. It's a best business practice that most any company will want to carry forward. I also think it's, it's an, it's an opportunity for them to look at what they're providing to the employees as an employee retention item.

BRODIE: Martha, let me ask you the same question. Do you get the sense that changes that businesses are looking for in maybe different ways of thinking about their office space — are those permanent changes or are they sort of temporary to get them through the current pandemic?

DEPLAZAOLA ABBOTT: Well, I think everybody has an incredible opinion about that. And we're not, you know, I'm certainly not a fortune teller. I have my own opinion, which I think is that this is a transition into something different. I'm hoping that we don't go back to the way we were because I think a lot of people were, you know, probably working on top of each other, working tremendous amount of hours, not seeing their families. So, you know, I hope we take advantage of this and do something different.

LOMBARD: One thing that I think is limiting maybe a little bit of at least employees feeling comfortable coming back to work — and maybe comfortable is not the right word — but, you know, schools, childcare, those elements are really a concern, and probably for a lot of folks not even available at this point in time. So I think employers and employees are also thinking about that and how to deal with that. And when they come back, it's somewhat timed as well as what happens with our schools.

BRODIE: Well, Cheryl, the word that keeps coming to my mind is 'uncertainty,' which, as you know, the conventional wisdom is that, you know, business hates uncertainty. And these times are all it is, it seems like, is uncertainty even down to the physical space in which they're working.

LOMBARD: Yeah, I would agree. And the good part is technology has adapted. We're still able to have that connectivity. But I think, like Martha said earlier, people do want to have the connectivity in person. You know, we do have an opportunity in how we live and work in the built environment. Do we need those large parking structures associated with office? If not, everyone's going to be in there at once. Do we have opportunities here that we can have multiple benefits from what's happening? So those are things that we do have to look at and keep in mind. We have less cars driving on the road, is that helping air? All of those things, those are tradeoffs that as a, as a city and as a state we have to talk about.

BRODIE: All right. We'll unfortunately have to leave it there. Cheryl, Martha, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

LOMBARD: Thank you.

DEPLAZAOLA ABBOTT: Thanks, Mark. Really appreciate it.

BRODIE: Cheryl Lombard is president and CEO of Valley Partnership, Martha dePlazaola Abbott is an architect and the co-managing principal of the Gensler Phoenix office.

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