COVID-19 is redefining how we live and work, as well as altering our perceptions of place, and challenging us to rethink the design and functionality of our spaces. The built environment will face new demands post-pandemic, and how we use spaces will change, from repositioning and adapting existing assets to building new ones.
Real estate has undergone quite a bit of change in recent years as is, with the proliferation of concepts such as coworking, flexible working and hot desking, providing new solutions that account for the evolving ways in which we work. However, COVID has certainly served as a catalyst for transformation with the commercial and corporate interiors space. In this piece, we put forward some of the key considerations in this sector for the near future, as we look towards a return to offices.
The role of remote working
Prior to the pandemic, the proportion of individuals working remotely was low, with figures from various labour force surveys indicating that just 5% of the workforce in the EU27 worked from home in 2019 – a proportion that had remained relatively constant since 2009. In the US, this figure was 7% according to the 2019 National Compensation Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Despite years of predictions about remote working being the upcoming trend and advocacy for its merits, a marked shift never really happened. And yet, suddenly in March 2020, working from home was thrust upon us as the new norm.
While productivity has been relatively unscathed – a recent Stanford report notes a 13% gain in employee performance related to remote working – it is clear that social and collaborative workplace engagement have been casualties of full-time working from home, and that employees may not feel as connected to the company culture as they do when immersed in it physically in an office. It is more challenging to maintain the more personable, human aspect of an organization remotely.
Going forward, it is likely that there will be a happy medium in terms of remote working, and that corporate workspaces will serve as environments for collaborative working and connectivity, rather than a place where employees come to work on individual projects or tasks.
Density and space utilization
Pre-COVID, soaring real estate costs were driving higher density and greater utilisation of space. Many large companies were forming global standards of office spaces, that were essentially a kit of parts to be adapted to different locations, such as tech hubs, easily configured offices, open-bench workstation neighbourhoods, and open network team areas. In terms of average square feet per employee, the norm in the 1980s was 200 to 300, according to Moody’s Analytics, but by 2019, that average had fallen to 126.5.
However, with the social distancing measures in place for the foreseeable future, and the abovementioned role of remote working going forward, space capacity and functionality will change, meaning that traditional high-density configurations of rows of desks will have to be reconsidered. With offices expected to cater more towards collaborative and social functions, there will need to be a shift towards smarter spaces that are conducive to interaction and conversation.
The role of adequate ventilation and indoor air quality in office spaces is obviously important, but it should be noted that not all heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are up to the task for current requirements. Now more than ever, it is vital that systems are reviewed with fresh air intake in mind and relative humidity, and potential improvements, such as filter upgrades, pre-filtration options and purification solutions, considered. The opportunity for smart technology to optimize the systems should also be explored, in terms of monitoring CO2 levels as a fundamental air quality indicator (and of the performance of the ventilation system), and controlling the operation of the system.
A strong focus on well-being
In recent years, there has been increased focus on the role of health and well-being in the workplace. Given that the average American spends 93% of their life indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it makes sense that now more than ever, organisations want to explore how they can optimize their workplace from a health and wellness perspective.
While certifications such as the Well Building Standard and Fitwel have been more and more popular in recent years, both have developed new standards in response to COVID. WELL has introduced the Health-Safety rating, which builds upon the existing pillars within the Standard, focusing on five key themes: cleaning and sanitization; emergency preparedness, which incorporates business continuity planning, building re-entry, and supporting resilience during emergencies; health-related services for occupiers; air and water quality management; and stakeholder engagement and communications. It is not confined to a particular type of facility and is customizable across 38 different criteria.
Meanwhile, Fitwel has launched a Viral Response Module as of the end of August, as an addition to its standard building certification. It provides annual, third-party certification of policies and practices, informed by the latest public health research on mitigating the spread of contagious diseases and incorporates turnkey policies that can be adapted to specific requirements. There are five chapters involved: leveraging buildings to migrate viral transmission; building trust in the workplace; addressing mental health within residential settings; optimizing density for people; and addressing health disparities in the built environment. While developers and tenants are reviewing their space requirements and looking to adapt their office space for flexible and remote working, the reality is that the need for connectivity and collaboration will ensure that the office market remains somewhat resilient during these uncertain times.