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Changing office environments: How COVID-19 has changed the workplace for good

By Rachel Madison

When it comes to working in an office, things look a lot different at the end of 2020 than they looked at the beginning of the year. Due to COVID-19, working from home and logging in to virtual meetings is the new normal, but for those who still go into the office, major changes have occurred as well. From staying socially distant from co-workers to heightened cleaning protocols, it’s safe to say the workplace environment has changed forever.

That is no exception in Round Rock, where commercial real estate organizations and office supply companies are seeing big shifts in trends that they expect to be around for the long haul.

New Trends

One of the biggest moves businesses are making is rethinking their real estate footprint, said Wyatt Russell, president of Round Rock-based 180 Office Solutions, adding that many are looking to sublease their space or leave if given the option because many of their employees are working from home or only coming into the office part time.

Subleasing is popular for a couple of reasons, said Brent Campbell, commercial broker for Round Rock-based Don Quick & Associates.

“Businesses aren’t able to make enough money to stay open or they’ve realized they are just as productive with remote employees as they were with bodies in the office and choose to downsize,” he said. “Some large corporate clients have expressed that the companies are downsizing square footage across the board. This is especially true in the office sector.”

Campbell added that some retail tenants have closed their doors after not making it through the pandemic, so some landlords have gotten space back.

“That does not seem to be the case in the office sectors,” he said. “Office tenants may be trying to sublease space, but they are also still paying rent.”

Another trend the pandemic brought is leasing is slightly down. Campbell said this is because some businesses are not confident in their own viability and would prefer to wait.

“I have personally only completed a handful of leases this year,” he said. “The majority of that has been industrial leases. Most of the office leasing has been renewals where owners are helping tenants where they can. This was especially true during the shutdown.”

When it comes to buying and selling commercial real estate, both are up due to extremely low interest rates, Campbell said, adding that some sellers are increasing their level of motivation to sell to move product sooner rather than later.

“We are currently seeing interests in the low 4 to 4.25 percent,” he said. “The only real issue is available buildings to buy. The market is still very tight, and we expect that to continue into 2021.”

Another trend the pandemic created is the slowing of construction, mainly because projects must pause anytime someone tests positive for COVID-19, or because of the high case rate within the industry, contractors have a hard time finding enough people to work, Campbell said.

“This trend seems to be loosening up as we are headed into 2021, and we expect commercial construction to continue heavy on the industrial side and slower in the retail and office sectors,” he added. “Many companies have projects permitted—some that took them years to obtain approval on—so they want to build those projects and move forward if they can. Some projects will get pushed into 2022 but will not be totally abandoned.”

As expected, companies were quick to put social distancing and cleaning measures into place. When it comes to office supplies, upmounted acrylic, plastic, or glass panels became extremely popular.

“Most open environments can add these products to existing desks or cubes to make them more socially distant,” Russell said. “In most dense workstation environments, the company has vacated spots to allow a minimum of six feet from any one desk to the next. PPE materials have also become standard and are extremely accessible in most companies we work with.”

Russell added that many companies have also requested air purification systems as well as hand sanitizing stations. In addition, there are new lighting products that kill airborne viruses, which he expects to be extremely popular.

“Providing adequate space from one employee to the next along with barriers between faces are the main requests we are getting,” Russell said. “Because so many are working from home and many others have downsized, we are not seeing large scale redesign or reconfiguring. I do expect we will see this more as more companies return to work.”

Campbell expects the medical industry to be the first to ramp up, as medical business owners such as dentists, optometrists, and chiropractors work hard to create clean environments where they can continue to see patients.

“I expect offices that house medical to continue expansion,” he said. “This is a sector that has weathered 2020 better and will rebound quickly going into 2021. Most office buyers we have met with are looking to buy medical spaces and buildings.”

Here to Stay

Russell expects the work-from-home model to stay around for the long term, but the office scene won’t become obsolete anytime soon.

“Working from home will be worked into many business models moving forward,” he said. “Working from home as an option is here to stay. I also feel strongly that returning to the workplace is needed. In the future I believe we will see more flexible office space.” Campbell agreed and said the trend of remote employees will play a big role in the continuing trends of subleasing and downsizing physical offices.

“Some companies are discovering they are just as productive with remote staff as they were with in-person staff,” he said. “Downsizing office spaces will be the new trend unless future company growth demands more space. We may also see offices split time. They may have some employees working Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and others Tuesday and Thursday. The focus will be avoiding having all employees in the office at one time.”

Many workers already had the ability to work remotely before the pandemic hit, so the transition to doing so full-time was not difficult for them, added Campbell, but for others, the transition was cumbersome as they were used to being anchored to a physical office. Virtual meetings have played a huge role in bridging this gap.

“Virtual meetings have been helping us have better attendance across the board with office meetings and with client meetings,” he said. “It helps eliminate travel as an issue and allows meetings to occur as planned no matter where the attendees are. Additionally, the ability to share files on platforms like Zoom are proving to be valuable with regard to time. It is very efficient to jump on a call and share documents, ideas, and plans. This is here to stay.”

Offices will also be held to a higher standard when it comes to cleaning protocols, Campbell said, adding that more disinfection of surfaces throughout the day by staff will be the norm rather than regular light cleaning once or twice a week.

“We are disinfecting at least twice a day and keeping PPE on hand for all to use,” he said. “We also recommend to our property owners and landlords that they talk with their cleaning crews about proper cleaning in order to make sure they are providing the cleanest properties possible for their customers.”

According to a report released earlier this year by commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield, which has an office in Austin, the pandemic has caused a few key things to occur when it comes to how people work. For example, productivity can occur anywhere, not just at the office.

Remote workers have been able to reach new heights when it comes to effective team collaboration, and the ability to focus and be engaged has remained high. In addition, the flexibility to work from anywhere has been appealing to most remote workers.

According to the report, 73 percent of the workforce believes companies should embrace some level of working from home; however, because of the growth of remote working, human connection and social bonding are suffering, impacting connection to corporate culture and learning. This has especially affected the younger generations, who are reporting more challenges when it comes to working from home.

The report suggests the new normal will include a “total workplace ecosystem,” in which the workplace won’t be just a single location, but instead a “variety of locations and experiences to support convenience, functionality, and wellbeing.” In addition, the report said the new purpose of the physical office will be to provide a destination for strengthening connections, learning, bonding between customers and coworkers, and innovation.