Tag Archives: design post covid

The Employee is Always Right! Why Your Workplace Has More in Common With Malls Than You Think.

Whether it’s a 20-person start-up or a solo-preneur, Gather Art’s District provides tenants the flexibility to grow and scale within the same four walls.

How many times have you heard that “the mall is dead”? One quick Google search using this phrase churns out several hundred haunting visualizations of abandoned storefronts, eerily vacant food courts, and pastel wallpaper curling off the walls. 

Recent conjecture about the demise of the office triggers a similar sense of dread among commercial real estate brokers and tenants as they envision a post-pandemic future. In reality, retail—just like any other industry succumbing to the wiles of the virtual landscape—isn’t going anywhere. It’s merely evolving, and the office is no different.

Office design has matured since the turn of the twentieth century, taking on various models like Taylorism circa 1904 and Cube Farm in the seventies and eighties with the dawn of the cubicle. The most popular and commonly used today is known as the Networking model. Often referred to as the flexible or open office, Networking has flourished in the past decade with movable furniture, semi-divided workstations, and seating arrangements designed to address the need for collaboration, privacy, and overall efficiency of space.

Flexibility has taken on new meaning since the start of the pandemic as employees working at home appreciate new-found independence in the way they work, when they choose to do it, and where. Likewise, employers have witnessed how efficient and productive remote work can be. Still, only 24% of professionals have said they want to work remotely full-time, though they don’t want to give up the flexible work option that technology has granted them at home. We surveyed our own staff and found only 5% would want to telework full-time if the option was available but none expressed an interest in returning to the office full-time either. It seems the most preferred option is somewhere in between, with the vast majority (85%) hoping to spend 1-3 days working remotely in the future.

“We have to give people a reason to come back to work,” says Patrick Gegen, Senior Designer at Hickok Cole. “When retail first saw a shift in sales coming from online channels, some brick and mortar sites shut down as a result, but eventually the industry learned to appreciate the value-add of in-store services and pivoted towards offering customers curated, branded experiences that made it worth their in-person visit.”

In-store activations and events like Instagram pop-ups or massive dance classes caused a resurgence in brick-and-mortar. So much so that even direct-to-consumer brands (those who sell their products online) like Warby Parker and Rothy’s have launched physical storefronts of their own. So, what’s the office equivalent? 

“People want a personal touch, they crave human interaction,” explains Patrick. “We’ve all proven that we can work from home and we enjoy it to a certain degree, but we’ve erased the impromptu catch-ups and run-ins, both of which stimulate and contribute to the creative process. Video calls and virtual conferences can’t replace the social experience we derive from the workplace.”

Bully Pulpit Interactive offers a variety of workstations that cater to the individual needs of each employee.

Company culture, networking, and social interactions with co-workers may be enough to drive workers back into the office building. But, according to Patrick, that shouldn’t mean employees return to the same space. Instead, he envisions a future landscape catering to employees who have the option to work remotely but who typically choose not to. That means the new office will be designed with fewer designated desks and more public spaces that facilitate connection while serving a breadth of functions: fewer private offices and more divisible space; multi-purpose rooms that break down for additional, smaller conference spaces or semi-private workstations instead of just hosting large group meetings; and amenity spaces equipped with charging stations and enough table space for several workers to set-up as needed. With the ability to work from home for heads down or quiet work, more centralized workstations will allow employees to congregate and collaborate easily while private spaces will serve those looking to retreat from distractions at home or who feel more productive in the work environment. 

“One thing that’s likely to affect how we interact with the office is our sense of balance and well-being,” said Melissa Brewer, Co-Director of Interior Design and a Senior Associate at Hickok Cole. “We’ve clearly grown accustomed to the flexibility in our schedules and the extra hours we’ve gotten back without our commutes. So how can we replicate this level of convenience in the office?”

A study conducted by FlexJobs identified work-life balance as the top consideration for professionals evaluating new job prospects, even outweighing factors like vacation days and salary requirements. The same study found that Gen X (40%) and pet-owners (28%) represented the top tiers of workers who wanted flexible work options – and that was before the pandemic. It’s clear that flexibility and convenience are top priorities for the next generation of workers and driving factors behind why employees today prefer working from home.

Melissa argues that convenience is the holy grail of office amenities and suggests office owners and employers take that into consideration when designing a new space or re-integrating their workforce post-pandemic. Offering services that benefit employees by allowing them to optimize their time at home makes them feel valued while allowing them to focus on work when in office. In fact, one survey found that providing employees with onsite clinics not only reduces medical care costs but the time they spend away from work traveling to and from their physician. Likewise, offering in-house services like onsite daycare and dry-cleaning contribute to greater productivity and comfort. 

Discovery, Inc. offers employees on-site access to medical clinics helping to improve productivity and job satisfaction.

“Employers that are ahead of the curve were already providing the things in life that help employees save time and feel appreciated–either directly in their building or adjacent neighborhood–before the pandemic,” Melissa continued. “Now that employees feel like they’ve achieved higher levels of work-life balance during quarantine, they’re going to want to preserve that when it comes time to return to the workplace. And I think employers understand that. They have lives too.”

Offering benefits that go above and beyond the standard packages will help entice new talent and a younger generation post-quarantine, as well as help retain current employees by demonstrating they care. Employers and office space will adapt to emphasize convenience and service so people can maximize their time spent at home as well as their time spent at work.

The pandemic has taught us that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to our work week anymore–and maybe there never was. Our internal survey shows that parents desire increased flexibility in order to devote more quality time to their families, while staff who live alone prioritize connection to their team members and the social side of work. Retail has adapted into a highly personalized experience and so too should our workplace. Each individual’s needs, tasks, and life circumstances vary greatly, and our new challenge is to design a space that allows each employee the flexibility to make it their own.

The French novelist, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr said it best, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” In short, like retail, the office isn’t going anywhere, it’s simply evolving.

Could the Solution to Our Housing Crisis Be Your Corner Office?

There’s no question we are re-evaluating the role of the office. Telework was already on the rise prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, but now opinions are more conclusive. Companies are discovering remote work to be remarkably successful and sometimes even more productive. In response, discussions around offices downsizing, or decentralizing into multiple, smaller spaces have picked up speed. Some are calling into question the need for a physical office at all. Like many metropolitan areas, the DC office market has taken a hit, with vacancies reaching an all-time high of 15.2% in the second quarter. Meanwhile, supply has continued to increase with the delivery of new office buildings. As companies begin to downsize or sublet unnecessary space, it begs the question, what will we do with these empty buildings?

With a looming housing crisis and general lack of affordable housing impacting major cities across the country, an often-proposed solution is to convert older, underutilized office buildings with more modest floor plans – usually constructed in the 1950-1960s – into residential buildings. In cities like New York and Baltimore, these types of conversions are well underway, but DC had been slow to jump aboard the trend. However, since Mayor Muriel Bowser announced her goal to build 36,000 new units – 12,000 of which will be affordable – by 2025, the DC government and several local organizations, including the Downtown BID and the Golden Triangle BID, have begun to seriously explore conversions as a potential remedy to address affordable housing.

According to Gerry Widdicombe, Director of Economic Development of the Downtown DC BID, “Office vacancies are likely to continue given the current two million-plus square feet of office space under construction or renovation. In Downtown DC, our office vacancy rate is at 15.3% as of July 30, 2020. And we’re expecting it to rise to over 17% over the next 12 to 24 months.” The competition for owners to lease vacant space will be fierce in the foreseeable future, which could lower effective rents “either directly or by increasing rent concessions, tenant improvement allowances, and months of free rent,” he explained. Leona Argouridis, Executive Director of the Golden Triangle BID shared that her district is up to 17.4% vacancy as of last month. Adding that the neighborhood has 34 million square feet of office space, but less than 50 units of residential. “Given the current office rents for leased spaces, office renovation pro formas will show office net operating income per square foot to exceed residential net operating income.” But this might not hold true if rents decrease and, if they do, older office buildings will remain vacant until office demand picks up or we identify another use for them.

Laurence Caudle, Senior Principal and Director of Housing at Hickok Cole, asserts that this is an opportunity to prioritize diversifying and creating more walkable, activated neighborhoods. “Market conditions and previous zoning preferences have limited diversification in the Central Business District, creating dead zones outside of the regular 9-5 work hours, something that may be exacerbated by more people working from home in the future,” he says. “More mixed-use developments, with three-plus uses – like office, residential, and retail – would not only pave the way for more residential units and subsidized housing but create more economic opportunity and make neighborhoods more diverse and financially resilient.”

This is especially prevalent in the Central Business District and along K Street NW, a notoriously rigid area known for its abundance of office space. For decades, K Street housed some of DC’s more prominent companies but has conceded several leases in recent years to the newly developed waterfronts in addition to Northern Virginia, the city’s long-time competitor for new office tenants.

In other areas of the city, like 14th Street NW and Adams Morgan, zoning gives preferential treatment to residential buildings over offices, creating an imbalance between daytime and nighttime traffic. “These neighborhoods have a thriving nightlife, predominantly dominated by bars and restaurants because so few people are there during the day,” adds Laurence. “That’s fine, but wouldn’t it make for a more stable economic landscape if there were more offices in the area? That would ensure restaurants and other retail had patrons 24/7. Instead, activity along 14th Street dies down during work hours. That’s income lost for anyone with a storefront.”

Historically, the operating cost for offices has been less than housing operating costs so, in office-designated zones, the main way in which developers can see a greater return through a conversion is if they add more density and create additional rentable square footage. But a combination of height, and in some cases floor area ratio (FAR) restrictions in the city makes that a far more challenging task. Furthermore, some office owners have never owned residential properties or are not allowed to own them because they are office-owning real estate investment trusts or office restricted investment funds. In that case, Gerry pointed out, “There are the transaction costs of selling to a residential developer. City incentives could help cover this cost and others, including buying out a few office leases, installing plumbing for dozens of kitchens and bathrooms per floor, and possibly cutting out some density to achieve better lighting required by the residential market.”

Last year, a city-assembled task force developed the Office-to-Affordable Housing Task Force Report, identifying ideal locations according to vacancy rates, while summarizing the barriers keeping developers at an arm’s length. Until recently, the DC office market was thriving and relatively stable, making vacant buildings ripe for conversion few and far between. Though challenges remain, including a lack of financial incentive, the good news is that recent zoning changes allow a mix of uses, including residential, in downtown zones.

“A demand for activated environments has climbed to the top of many tenants’ wish lists. More and more of our projects are going outside of central DC because tenants are enticed by the energy of The Wharf and Navy Yard, neighborhoods that pretty much have it all,” says Laurence. “Now that it’s become more apparent how much time we waste in our cars, on public transportation, and commuting around the city, people value walkability more than ever – whether that be walking to work or the grocery store.”

The pandemic has accelerated behavioral trends across the board and fundamentally changed the way we live and work. DC can use this opportunity to capture underutilized space and meet market needs more efficiently by reimagining downtown areas that are remnants of old market trends and zoning regulations that discourage walkability in addition to offering incentives that make conversions more attractive to developers. These changes would create new jobs and attract new residents to DC’s core, ultimately stimulating the economy for a post-pandemic recovery. More housing, in general, would drive down prices and encourage more of the population to settle down, through a development strategy that prioritizes diversification over gentrification of existing neighborhoods. The District is – and has been – evolving. As members of the real estate and design community, let’s take advantage of available infrastructure and invest in a development program that will help DC thrive.

The Future of Multi-Family: Design Implications for Healthier Living Post COVID-19

Well before the 2020 global pandemic, people were averaging 90% of their lives indoors. Now with mandatory shelter in place orders, social distancing, and encouraged remote working, this once appalling figure feels more accurate than ever. The unprecedented amount of time we’ve spent in our homes recently has fundamentally altered the role it plays in our everyday life, forcing it to serve more functions than ever before—high-performing workplace, flexible gym, stimulating school, entertainment hub, and safe haven. Stretching our personal space to its limits has shown a spotlight on what works and what doesn’t, and prompted the entire population to think more intentionally about how the residential environment meets their needs. How will this pivotal moment in history shape our relationships with our home, our community, and the environment as we look towards our return to society?

Following their webinar, The Future of Multifamily: Design Implications for Healthier Living Post COVID-19, Laurence Caudle, Rhea Vaflor, and GHT Limited’s Jim White, summarize the major design trends and solutions anticipated to hit multi-family development as a result of COVID-19.

HEALTH + WELLNESS

Digital Detox

Time spent working at home has meant that our daily commutes, team lunches, and run-ins at the water cooler have been eliminated – or replaced by virtual means. Between work, news, Netflix, Zoom happy hours, and social media, people are spending an exorbitant amount of time in front of screens, and it’s beginning to wear them down. Deprived of human interaction, people are craving DIY activities and connections with nature. As restricted access to shared amenity spaces lift, already highly sought after green spaces will become more popular than ever, serving as space for screen-time reprieves. To meet demands, we are exploring how rooftops, terraces, and courtyards in residential environments can evolve to accommodate urban farms and community gardens geared towards providing healthy, fresh foods to residents. The availability of these outdoor hobbies would support community wellbeing and relaxation while reducing the time residents spend in grocery stores or other enclosed market spaces.

Work from Home

Space comes at a premium in any big city, but lack of space while working from home is associated with poor ergonomics, decreased productivity, and increases in stress, migraines, and joint or muscle pain. The teleworking trend shows no signs of slowing down, placing emphasis on innovation and creative use of space as we approach the next chapter of multifamily design. To accommodate more time spent working at home, we expect to see an increase in dual purpose rooms and flexible furniture, including built-in desks and bookshelves, walk-in closets that double as office space, or flip up desks at windows sills that double as storage space. Shared amenities will include multiple co-working lounges throughout the building with access to natural light and widely dispersed workstations with excellent acoustics, in addition to outdoor work spaces immersed in greenery.

Indoor/outdoor fitness center at The Jamison at Dakota Crossing in Washington, DC

Exercise

Co-working is not the only amenity evolving towards increased outdoor use. With fitness facilities and amenities closed during the pandemic, many residents have adjusted their exercise regimen, picking up jogging and cycling outside as a result. Some have gotten creative by utilizing staircases for sprints and squats or taking to Zoom for streamed workouts in their living rooms. To accommodate new styles of exercise and ensure proper sanitation of all work out spaces, we expect to see more variety in fitness design including indoor/outdoor features, an increase in smaller, segmented interior spaces with streaming capabilities for private use, as well as fewer cardio stations that sit farther apart. If a new fitness facility is not an option, management might consider investing in the aesthetics of stairwells – fresh paint, engaging wall art – to encourage their use, both as an alternative to elevators and for exercise.

EQUITY

Safety

Coronavirus has emphasized the effect of socioeconomic factors on human health and we must implement procedures to guarantee clean air and a safe environment for all. Studies show that air pollution is linked to higher rates of Coronavirus deaths while exposure to air pollution is typically linked to lower income neighborhoods and communities of color. To mitigate the spread of germs and bacteria, we anticipate air quality tests and filtration processes will be held to a higher standard moving forward. Increased air filtration can lead to higher upfront and operational costs, so engineers will be called upon to utilize innovative strategies to provide higher filtration without increasing energy consumption. Developers and operators should play an active role to ensure residents across their portfolio have access to clean air. Further care should be taken as they relate to minimizing and eliminating indoor contaminants by selecting materials with low volatile organic compounds (VOCs), easy to clean high touch surfaces, and green cleaning products.  Finally, building operators can incorporate signage that highlights the importance of indoor air quality, water quality, and natural light to their occupants, as well as communicate what actions they’re taking to maintain a healthy environment for their community.

Activity room and computer lab for children and teens at Plaza West in Washington, DC

Technology

Access to the internet is no longer a luxury but a vital part of our existence in society, a fact that has become more prevalent in our socially-distant world. Those without internet access are disproportionately at risk of missing out on educational and career opportunities. Residential environments may consider incorporating Wi-Fi or broadband into their utilities or amenity services. Additionally, they may offer desktop computers for public use or tablets and laptops for rent.

COMMUNITY

Social clubroom amenity space at Fort Totten Square in Washington, DC

Internal

Social distancing has generated a deeper appreciation for real life experiences and human connection. Despite living in isolation, we continue to host virtual graduations, reunions, and happy hours. We’re reaching out to old friends, keeping in touch with distant family and forming stronger bonds with our community through volunteer work. While video chat, phone calls, and social media have helped keep us connected, they’re no replacement for face-to-face interaction. As we emerge from this experience, we expect to see a surge in social activity and multifamily should be prepared to meet demand with amenity spaces and programming that promote community building, entertainment, and collaboration among neighbors in a safe and meaningful way.

External

The pandemic has underscored some of the more glaring inefficiencies within urban planning. Traditional zoning policies segregate business districts from residential ones, resulting in economic dead zones and a disparity between areas with tall, dense development and areas with 2-3 story low rise development, further contributing to a lack of available and affordable housing. One solution is to establish zoning adjustments that would allow for more diverse developments or hybrid opportunities, developments that combine residential and commercial use. Not only would these opportunities help breed safer and more economically active communities, but they could help prevent the creation of hot-spots or vulnerable areas with higher walkability scores and increased accessibility to 80% of our basic human needs, including schools, parks, retail, and above all, healthcare services.

A recording of the webinar and a copy of the presentation are available for download, here.