Managing Professional Office Space: Key Lessons From 2020

Real Estate

Kenny Kane is the Chief Operating Officer at Firmspace

It’s hard to believe that almost a year ago we were nestled into our work-from-home setups thinking that we’d be back at the office in just a couple of months.

We’ve learned a lot about what people need from their work environment since then. For some, working from home is a dream; for others, it’s a nightmare; and for many, it’s a mixed bag. Flexibility and distraction are two sides of the same coin.

This is why so many professionals have kept commuting to a private office space every day: the peace of an office with closed doors, the irreplaceable spark of collaborating in person, the comfort of knowing your building takes pandemic safety seriously.

As the commercial real estate industry reckons with what’s next for the downtown office, investors should pay close attention to how the pandemic has shaped professionals’ standards for the workplace. Here’s what commercial real estate leaders need to know about what today’s professionals want in an office space.

Professionals deserve — and want — privacy.

Privacy is the antithesis of the noisy, open-floor-plan paradigm of pre-pandemic work. And the home office has only presented a new set of daily distractions.

A survey of over 2,000 employees last May found that lack of focus was the biggest challenge of remote work for 40% of respondents. The national childcare crisis has hindered millions of parents’ productivity, while employees of all ages have struggled to find a quiet and secure space at home for meetings and focused work.

Even before the pandemic when the open floor plan was king, the layout wasn’t always the boost to collaboration proponents said it was. One study found that after an office redesign to open-floor, employees spent 73% less time in face-to-face interactions.

That’s probably because busy professionals crave privacy, which home and open-floor offices don’t provide. Closed-door offices and sound-proof walls will likely be a sought-after amenity for companies looking to downsize or relocate post-pandemic.

But privacy isn’t only a spatial and sonic problem. The pandemic has underscored the security vulnerabilities of remote workers, as 2020 brought numerous and varied cyberattacks. Private office spaces will need a more robust IT infrastructure, too, plus the lightning-fast internet connection that most professionals can’t get at home.

Meaningful collaboration needs its own space.

The problem with open offices is that without a visual distinction between private work and group work, employees may not end up doing much of either. In addition to a private workspace of one’s own, professionals also need separate spaces for collaboration. 

Video conferencing platforms have somewhat effectively substituted in-office collaboration throughout the pandemic, but we’ve heard of many instances where Zoom doesn’t always meet the mark: 

• Executive teams need a polished setting where they can host board members. 

• Hiring managers need a space that reflects their company’s values when interviewing job candidates.

• Management teams need a secure conference room where they can discuss confidential data.

A collaborative space, in other words, is not only a space where people can meet — it’s a space where people can meet in confidence. True collaboration needs privacy, too. 

The ideal office space for professionals is one that accommodates both solitude and teamwork, each demarcated by walls and doors. Commercial real estate portfolios should include office spaces that support this model of collaboration.

Employees should feel safe and supported in their workspace.

There’s going to be a lot of anxiety around returning to the office, even after most of the population has been vaccinated. The task for commercial real estate managers and office designers will be to build an office ecosystem that serves both meaningful collaboration and public health.

Commercial real estate leaders can do a lot to ease these concerns by investing in proptech solutions that prioritize safety. The bulk of that work will be rigorous cleaning systems and touchless technology, which will benefit professionals every flu season to come.

Commercial real estate is due for a transformation of pre-pandemic health standards. The good news is that a healthier, higher-quality workspace also has a positive impact on performance: One experiment found that happiness can increase productivity by up to 12%. A happy workspace is an environment that nurtures well-being — one that has good air quality, natural light, comfortable seating and green space, among other things.


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