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August 2, 2020

Three years ago, we authored an article about the trends that are changing the workplace environment. To help those searching for answers and landing here, we've revised the list for a post-pandemic world.

The workplace is quickly changing. Rather than follow a clear-cut path, it's evolving through twists and turns, making it challenging to anticipate where we will end up. While a cloud of uncertainty lingers in the market, I believe the physical office will remain important. 

Ultimately, the workplace is trending toward a new hybrid model, with a combination of owned space, co-working space and Work From Home (WFH). Right now, plexiglass, tape and directional signage are in hot demand, but as corporations start to think about their permanent office environments, we see these 10 trends influencing the workplace of tomorrow.

 01.  Health and wellness

Already an important factor in office environments before COVID-19, health and wellness will become a top consideration for employees when choosing where they work and for tenants when designing their spaces. Every system and material will now be evaluated by a new set of health and wellness standards and how they prevent the spread of infection. Heightened attention will be given to indoor air quality, touchless surfaces, healthy materials and proper cleaning. Frequent hand-washing, sani-stations, wearing masks and social distancing are now widely accepted, and many of these preventive measures may stay in place even post-pandemic. Why not alter the spread of the common cold and flu while we are at it?

Along with the measures taken to improve the health of the space, like incorporating healthy materials and systems, we also expect to see a rise in demand for certifications like WELL, which came out with a new COVID certification. LEED, WELL and other certifications offer a third-party verification, which is assuring to building occupants.

Pepper's new Dublin office, which is seeking WELL Silver certification, was designed with consideration for the employees' health.

Design elements that focus on employee well-being will continue to play an important role. These include windows and glass partitions that let in natural light, fresh outdoor air, living walls and other biophilic features that bring nature indoors, as well as programs and amenities that support a healthy, active lifestyle.

Interior spaces that bring outdoor elements inside support a healthier environment.

02.  Remote workforce

Three years ago, we talked specifically about a mobile workforce, where people were on the go, working from different locations every day - in coffee shops, airports, etc. During COVID-19, the workforce shifted to WFH without another option. Now, the questions are how many employers will offer a permanent WFH option, and how much of the workforce will stay home. Some real estate companies and brokers are predicting about 30% of the workforce will make a permanent shift to a home-based work style or some version of it, and early on, many tech companies indicated they may never go back to an office environment, though that sentiment may be changing again.

Coffee shops were once popular environments for the mobile workforce. Since the pandemic, remote work has shifted to WFH.

03.  Decentralized offices

Are our downtowns forever changed? Pre-pandemic, there was a trend with headquarters moving back downtown as the workforce sought a more urban lifestyle. The jury is still out on the exact blend of downtown versus suburban office space. Right now, public transportation is suggesting there could be a flight to the suburbs. Trains are still empty, and highways are less crowded. The suburban commute into downtown is still trending sl-ow-ly.

Following a downtown boom, employers are starting to consider locating closer to where their teams live, which brings into question the future of the downtown workplace.

What happens if businesses don't fully return to downtown? Employers may map where their people reside and find space closer to where they live, which also brings the advantage of plentiful and free parking. Options include a hub-spoke set up, satellite offices or touchdown spaces that are operated by others. We may see demand for office space shift back to the suburbs.

04.  Decluttering

Instead of personalizing the office space, personalization will apply to the work style. Working from home and additional cleaning protocols encourage more minimalistic and clean designs. Fewer picture frames and statues on display translate to fewer crevices for germs and dust to settle, which also makes cleaning easier. WFH is already reinforcing the trend toward electronic communication and filing, which reduces the need for paper, filing cabinets and related supplies.

Desks have been cleared of personal photos and mementos to make cleaning and disinfecting easier.

05.  New shared spaces 

In the midst of warm weather, it's convenient to extend the office environment outdoors and take advantage of the fresh air. Plazas, patios and terraces provide additional meeting spaces with nice views. We're making use of our outdoor spaces right now. These outdoor spaces could become a selling point, but come winter with the bitter cold and harsh weather, our teams will be seeking other meeting space options. Indoor communal and collaborative spaces will have to meet new standards with different capacities.

When the weather is nice, outdoor spaces are a good option for team meetings.

06.  New furniture designs

We know new and creative furniture designs are coming. Right now, employers are making due with what they have by pulling every-other chair around the conference tables, raising screen heights and assigning teams to specific office days. Future furniture and fixture designs will expand on their current five-foot standards to consider the six-foot distancing rule and the spread of germs and other particulates.

Office furniture will be redesigned to new distancing standards.

07.  Different amenities

We expect many amenities to remain the same. It's the trends within them that are changing. We aren't likely to see as many game rooms or music rooms, and café spaces will be reconfigured. Additionally, with daycare and school closings presenting challenges for employees to return to the office full-time, employers may start to consider on-site childcare and other amenities that help parents and families.

Different amenities, like on-site child care, may become a higher priority to bring employees back into the office and encourage work-life balance.

08.  More technology

State-of-the-art HVAC systems, touchless fixtures, remote and voice-activated systems, electronic devices and robotic sanitizers will become the new norm. The race toward innovation and advancements in technology will be incorporated into every aspect of the building and will be used for communication, wellness and for building operations. Tele-data needs and space requirements will depend on the types of technology used.

The office of the future will not only feature the latest technology for communication and work efficiencies, but it will also be operated with state-of-the-art technology.

09.  Redefined culture

The workplace has been integral to establishing the company culture and building connections. In recent years, corporations have relied on their facilities to help build and maintain their brand and to attract and retain top talent. Instead of encouraging "culture-centric" design, employers are in culture shock as they look for new ways of building their brands outside of the office. If employees are the brand, what does a dispersed workforce do to the corporate identity? Branded backgrounds on Zoom calls and electronic communications are only a short-term solution to a growing concern. Will corporate identity influence a return to the office, or will what we know as the current "modern" design become tomorrow's traditional office?

The workplace is considered part of the company culture and is used to reinforce the brand. As the workforce continues some form of remote working, companies will look for other ways of connecting their teams to each other.

10.  Revised standards, guidelines and contracts

What will WFH and new office spaces do to our productivity? Companies and architects are starting to study the pandemic's effect on the workforce, but we don't have the full picture yet. All the changes we have experienced so far could result in additional changes in how we work. The workplace market has also started to incorporate pandemics and WFH standards into resiliency plans, with items such as rehearsed Information Technology (IT) responses. And Force Majeure is already entering conversations, as tenants now want minimums and guarantees in their leases that allow for cancellations due to "acts of God."

As the need for space shifts, companies are starting to sublease unused portions of their Class A office space, which is changing the demand for building owners, developers and brokers.

What I haven't discussed is the overall shift in demand that we are seeing, which is affecting lease deals and building types. Tenants are demanding higher quality features and amenities, and corporations are meeting the demand by subleasing raw or lightly used portions of their new Class A spaces. This wholesale movement is sure to impact rental rates. This will present favorable opportunities for tenants but will create a depressed business climate for office building owners, developers and brokers. Class B and C office building owners will scramble to satisfy post-pandemic tenant requirements given physical constraints such as small elevators, and older HVAC and MEP systems.  

These are the trends we see today that are impacting the future of the workplace. Because the changes were immediate and born out of necessity and not choice, there seem to be as many questions as answers right now. As the situation evolves, we'll provide updates. Our hope is that we look back on the other side and realize we're better off -- with stronger teams, healthier buildings, better balance and a brighter outlook.

Interested in reading what we said three years ago? Click here to read the original post.

About the Author

Tony Smaniotto

Tony Smaniotto, MCR, MBADirector of Business Development, Illinois

Tony Smaniotto is a commercial real estate veteran with 30 years of experience in corporate real estate, capital markets, city planning and real estate development. A business developer and strong team player, Tony works closely with the executive leadership team at Pepper, where our client's projects represent the future. As business development director, he responsible for strategic account development with a focus on identifying new opportunities in the corporate workplace, retail and healthcare interiors markets.

Tony earned his MBA in Finance and Real Estate, with Academic Distinction, from the DePaul University Charles H. Kellstadt Graduate School of Business. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Tony is chairman of the CoreNet Chicago chapter, past president and honorary board member of The Dads Association at the University of Illinois and treasurer and board member of the Chicago Illini Club.