May 28, 2020 - Health

What reopened offices will look like

An illustration of an office with lots of cublicles.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The long process of reopening office buildings after months of being shut down will require new technology, careful planning and far fewer workers than before the pandemic.

Driving the news: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines on Wednesday detailing how office buildings can reopen.

  • The short version: Face masks, handshake bans, physical distancing, daily health checks and staggered shifts.

"We are never going to have the same number of people in the office than we did before" COVID-19, said Sanjay Rishi, CEO of Corporate Solutions in the Americas of public brokerage firm JLL. "Organizations are redefining 'we' space versus 'me' space."

  • Rishi said building tenants are actively redesigning offices to allow more personal space. This includes marked corridors to direct traffic flow and removing open-area desks and conference room chairs.
  • Employers are installing digital tools: Sensors that alert which spaces are occupied, assigned elevator trips and touchless entry that doesn't require a badge.

The big question: What happens to commercial real estate in a work-from-home world?

  • On the one hand, full-time or hybrid work-from-home environments logically reduce the demand for office real estate.
  • On the other, "de-densifying" offices means people that do go to work will have to spread out, driving the demand for more square footage.

Where it stands: There's broad consensus that offices will continue to exist, even if they look different.

"The role of the office has not changed. Maybe the location may change, the design may change, but it is a place for collaboration, for innovation and creativity. ... I can see the increasing flexibility in terms of work-life arrangements, but I have not met any individual with the aspiration to work from home for the rest of their career."
ā€” Tim Wang, managing director and head of investment research for Clarion Partners, on an Urban Land Institute webinar
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