Course 16:

Helping Clients Reimagine Office Space for COVID-19 and Beyond

Scott A. Hill

By: Scott A. Hill

Senior Leasing Executive

An office is not just a place with desks, conference rooms and coffee machines. As many have realized during their extended absence from its walls, an office space is greater than the sum of its parts. Some businesses, such as ours, have been working in our offices since the Governor allowed it. Our task force team created all the necessary COVID-19-prevention and management protocols for our employees to work in a safe environment. Now that New York’s COVID numbers have remained so low for so long, many businesses are preparing their return to the office. This is a time for business owners and Human Resource leaders to enhance and customize their offices by determining what works and what does not for both a modern, productive office space and one that functions in a COVID world.

As a full-service commercial real estate development firm, Uniland has been supporting clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to small businesses since 1974. Our vertically integrated team offers the design and operational expertise to help organizations reconfigure their existing workspace or pursue a new environment as they solidify their reopening plan. Uniland’s time-tested guiding principles have been even more critical, notably those of customer focus, innovation and integrity.

Here is how they have been embraced during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Customer Focus

The coronavirus has upended businesses operations. As a company dedicated to the success of our clients, the importance of communication has never been greater. My colleagues and I have been reaching out to our office tenants to see how they are doing and offering our support. As New York ordered the closing of nonessential businesses, we prepared a COVID-19 resource guide for them. When phased reopening commenced, we shared a best practices guide.

After months of Zoom meetings, there is a deeper appreciation of the value of in-person interaction and connection. While social distancing is necessary, workplace interaction plays a role in the individual employee’s mental health and wellness as well as that of the organization. This is not just a sentiment of workers who grew up in a world without smartphones. It is also shared by digital natives. A recent Cushman & Wakefield survey noted that roughly 70% of millennial and Gen Z workers had challenges with remote work. Physically isolated, they seek the professional development and mentorship opportunities that can thrive in a dynamic workplace.

Innovation

There is intrinsic value in working for a company, from the camaraderie and sense of accomplishment through teamwork to the identity of being a member of that organization. It isn’t the same working from the kitchen table. Remote working and a Zoom meeting isn’t the same as being together in the workplace conference room. Our planners and designers are working with clients from diverse industries to help them create a flexible office space that represents the organization’s values and culture while addressing COVID concerns. For example, a common area is an important shared space within an office, where the floor plan may have to be changed to improve social distancing standards. More open office layouts will be designed to offer a worker to properly social distance while still being productive.

We are helping businesses balance the need for in-person workspace with employee safety and health concerns. Our clients span from healthcare organizations and medical equipment suppliers to financial services firms and manufacturing companies. This guidance process has highlighted the unique position of each business and business owner and their goals as it relates to their physical space and office layout during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Some have significantly reconfigured their space, leveraging physical barriers and reimagining the break room, while others have staggered shifts to curb office density. We also have space that can meet demands of greater flexibility in this fluid environment. Our recently opened HANSA workspace in downtown Buffalo offers a clean, safe and collaborative environment for businesses with robust flexible space for coworking, private office and meeting space. Plexiglass partitions are just one example of a physical barrier put in the workplace to ensure the health and safety of the office workers.

The physical office should feel like a second home for workers, which is why it is important to maintain the highest possible level of health and safety that an organization can provide. The use of an open floor plan can be very beneficial to promote physical distancing guidelines also while keeping the space flexible.

Integrity

As a company with over seven million square feet under management, we have examined and adapted our facilities, which span office building, warehouse and mixed-use sites. We seek to have the journey from a building user’s vehicle to their office be as touch-free as possible by encouraging physical distancing. We have placed signage explaining building policies, installed thousands of self-cleaning coverings on high touch surfaces, like door handles and elevator buttons, and added hundreds of sanitizing stations.

While we clearly state the requirements at building entrances, successful implementation necessitates that tenants enforce them — such as face covering, use of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and social distancing — with their employees, partners and guests. Building owners and landlords set the acceptable activity and within the space, but it requires cooperation with the building’s tenant users. Similarly, employer tenants need to assess their cleaning policies and procedures as well as those of their service providers and vendors. We have been leveraging the CDC guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as those from the Departments of Health of New York State, Erie and Monroe counties, as well as the Building Owners and Managers Association and the Institute for Real Estate Management to mitigate risk in this public health challenge.

This is a time for business leaders to analyze workspace risks and rewards based on the best interests of their organizations. We are here to help office workers move away from remote work and to plan and execute the right workspace vision for post-COVID success.

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