Pandemic changes the face and space of offices in Kansas City

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Toilet paper is so three months ago.

These days, it’s Plexiglass. The clear, acrylic material we associate with salad bar sneeze guards (which, ironically, are closed right now) is close to selling out as U.S. companies head back to work. From erecting clear barriers around cubicles to allowing windows to actually open and let in fresh air, it seems business leaders are exploring many different tactics to keep employees safe.

With so much of our lives still up in the air, it’s no surprise the future of our offices are just as much in flux. On top of managing through an economic downturn, the pandemic is also causing business owners to rethink the future of the office space.

And like so many of our daily routines, we expect our offices to soon see some changes—but that’s probably a good thing.

The future of the Kansas City office space?

This health crisis has had a massive ripple effect on nearly every aspect of our lives, including how we view work and where we do it.

For starters, many employers are starting to reconsider the benefits of remote working for some or all of their workers. From eliminating that daily commute (and with it, wasted time and emissions) to improved technology, telework is allowing many companies to provide a number of valued benefits to their teams. Plus, the shift is potentially allowing many companies to reduce their office workplace expense by staggering in-office work schedules and reducing the physical footprint they require.

Simply put, it’s causing us all to evaluate what changes we may need to make in the future. Peter Sloan, AIA, IIDA, senior principal at HOK, participated in a recent virtual panel hosted by McCownGordon, where he addressed these bigger issues:

“I think the thing that’s important for everyone to think about is really going back to what the purpose of the office was and what that work was, and what the space was really designed for—and how that element and that reality has been shaken … Until we get that confidence of how we want to use space – not only in our homes but when we go back to the office – it’s going to be really hard for us to be effective.”

So, how do we adapt the office space to the changing reality, so we not only meet health and safety expectations but also stay effective and successful? While wholesale changes to layout, processes, furniture and technology aren’t done overnight, we expect to see some movement in a few office trends in the future:

More assigned seating (and more unassigned seating)

The pandemic may have put a stop to the rising trend of hoteling, as more employees desire an assigned space not shared with others. On the flip side, we also see companies offering more unassigned seating—in more spacious open areas employees can retreat to when they feel more comfortable distancing themselves from another co-worker.

Open offices get back to being actually open

The social distancing we’ve grown accustomed to at the grocery store will carry over to work, and offices will begin to implement that type of separation—one that essentially restores the open office concept back to how it was intended. Instead of companies continuing to add density to these open offices, employees will once again be able to find their own corner of the space without having to be elbow-to-elbow with someone else. Primo Orpilla, co-founder at interior design company Studio O+A, elaborates in Fast Company:

“Anytime you look at a well-designed open plan, there’s only about 30% of people sitting at the desk. The rest are using other parts of the office space, thereby exercising social distancing on demand in their own way. That being said, the target has been painted. Over the last five years, there’s been a push for the open plan model to densify. That’s where you’re seeing the problems. Some places were designed without the additional open areas, meeting spaces, or the right ratio of meeting spaces to headcount. They were not well thought-out.”

Technology finally gets a better seat at the table

There’s a reason there was a six-to-eight-week lead time for a basic Web cam this spring. Companies were forced to invest in the tools that allow business to be done in various ways, in various locations, and that trend continues once the doors are fully open again. As more and more employees are allowed to do more of their work remotely – or at least the flexibility to choose – conference rooms will need better virtual meeting capabilities, those private phone booths may need an upgrade to be better equipped for Zoom calls, and office design and layout will take technology into account much earlier in the process.

A solid silver lining for KC workers

More employers are discovering for the first time that some of their workers can be productive working from home. However, for most employers, face-to-face collaboration and the need for focus within an organization’s “four walls” are critical to their business. The physical office will remain as important, if not more, as it becomes an even more flexible workplace and the lab of creativity that inspires a company’s mission and culture.

At the end of the day, I think this pandemic will spur a lot of good in the world of office space, especially a larger focus on employee health. From new furniture configurations to modified HVAC to improve air quality, to using more cleanable building materials—employees will start coming to work with certain expectations – and rightfully so – that their employer is doing everything possible to ensure a safe and healthy work environment.

That may include lots of Plexiglass – or new solutions we haven’t even thought of – but they’re all steps in the right direction.

Bucky Brooks is a principal at Copaken Brooks, a full-service commercial real estate firm headquartered in Kansas City and serving the Midwest. The company’s full suite of services includes: leasing (office, medical, retail, industrial and underground), construction management, investment acquisition and sales, tenant representation and HQ relocations, condo management, property management, asset management, and development. Share your thoughts on our Facebook page or on Twitter @CopakenBrooks.

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