Clockwise from top left: Sandra Hodge, principal, JSA Inc.; Genella McDonald, president, Stibler Associates; Ken Allis, president, Resource Office Furniture; Daniel Scully, owner, Scully Architects; and Amanda Savage, business development manager, North Branch Construction.
The pandemic is changing many aspects of daily life, especially how and where people work. To get a better understanding of the way workspaces are evolving, Business NH Magazine gathered experts on construction and design for a roundtable discussion of what those changes look like.
As offices emptied out, especially in major metropolitan areas, there was grave concern over the future of commercial real estate, but areas in high demand quickly refilled spaces while those with gluts of space looked at ways to repurpose.
Commercial tenants, meanwhile, are still weighing options as a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases tamps down the desire to return to the office, and companies try to craft attractive hybrid and work-from-home models.
Genella McDonald, president of Stibler Associates, an interior design firm in Bedford, says many companies need the same amount of space but plan to use it in a different way. “Where we would have had more individual private offices, there is more seat sharing happening, but roomier with more elbow room,” McDonald says. “There is definitely more focus on collaboration. Part of coming back to the office is to be together. So, square footage that might have been dedicated to a single person is used for many.”
Sandra Hodge, principal interior design at JSA Inc. in Portsmouth, says companies are trying to figure out the right mix of workstations. “One company has a complex formula that factors in how many people are coming in two days a week, three days a week, and how many are remote,” she says. “Then they calculate how many workstations, how many hoteling stations versus private offices are needed.”
Daniel Scully, owner of Scully Architects in Dublin, says collaboration is the word of the day. “That is the function of the office. You need the collaborative moments to create office culture and trust in your team.”
Ken Allis, president of Resource Office Furniture in Salem, says people are still demanding the same size space, but pre-COVID the walls were beginning to come down to create more open environments. “The 66-inch high panels were going away but now are going back up in many cases,” he says. “But now with more glass instead of solid walls to maintain that visual sense of openness.”
Glass panels used as dividers in a workspace. Courtesy of Resource Office Furniture.
Hodge says some companies are still doing open concept for the general office space but providing phone rooms and zoom rooms of various sizes. “We are on these calls all day long, and there are those whose voices carry,” she says.
McDonald says there are a variety of options for reconfiguring an open office environment while still keeping workers socially distanced, including using lower panels with frosted glass and less obvious physical barriers. “New Hampshire is not a state that runs right out and embraces the latest trend,” says McDonald. “We have clients that gradually made their way to a more open office but not in a way that a lot of shocking things have to happen today to revert and reorient the furniture.”
Amanda Savage, business development manager at North Branch Construction in Concord, says they are working on an office renovation project to house 150. “They decided not to make any changes to the design but instead are changing when people will be in the office. They will be hot-desking and hoteling, so the changes are less about design and more about scheduling,” she says.
Hot-desking and hoteling are workstations that many employees can use, either with a quick connect for a laptop or an installed laptop or PC that has software allowing multiple users without the need to create a user account for each person who might access that computer.
Supply Chain Challenges
As businesses reconfigure spaces for the return of employees or build new ones, they will need to be flexible and patient.
The pandemic has interrupted the supply chain of many industries and it is proving challenging, Savage says. “One builds back up and then another goes down. We are pulling our hair out on procurement. It is an ongoing process behind the scenes,” she says.
“We have seen huge challenges,” adds Allis. “Manufacturers are having difficulty getting certain raw materials, there are delays in multi-carrier transit, and some products that would normally take 10 days to receive, now take six weeks or longer because they are missing one part in the factory or they don’t have the manpower to produce the product. My vendors are coming out with extended lead times that are now double in some cases compared to pre-COVID. There are some items out of stock until next April, so I have to look for alternate vendors to meet customer orders.”
Hodge is planning ahead for a big project. “It won’t be built until 2022, but we ordered furniture in July 2021 because it is going to take that long.”
Scully adds that he had to revise structural plans as some steel shapes are difficult to obtain. Savage had to do a redesign because floor and roof trusses were not available. And these changes can be costly.
“Using a construction management firm in the early stages of design allows you to adapt to supply chain challenges,” Savage says. “It is more important than ever to have a pre-construction phase. If the design is 100% complete, we can’t add that value to plan for shortages. People think it will be cheaper to skip it, but we can be better prepared for what
Health and Wellness in Design
The pandemic continues to drive changes to mechanical systems as companies try to maintain a healthy environment. Many firms upgraded HVAC units early on, adding better filters and incorporating UV light-filtering systems.
Hodge says she feels the best thing would be operable windows, but Savage adds that can wreak havoc on an HVAC system designed to control energy costs.
And there are many easy ways to make offices safer in the age of COVID, Scully says. “You can open doors with a foot pad, use touchless bathroom equipment. There are many products available that may not have been getting as much use in the past,” he says.
While many companies opted to rope off water fountains for safety reasons, the units are still required by code, which is driving up demand for ones equipped with bottle fillers.
McDonald says companies are also focusing on overall physical health and not just the spread of COVID. “It touches not just your design choices but HR policies, such as making sure you stay home if you are sick,” she says. “Interior plants have finally gotten their day. They contribute to air quality and to mental health and wellbeing. Access to nature and adding plants creates comfort in the office,” she says.
And while some gravitated to medical-grade materials in 2020, McDonald says most opted for the standard easy to clean surfaces, “They are paying a little more attention in conference rooms, wiping down the tables, but there has not been a wholesale move to turn everything into a clinical white box,” she says.
The Place to Be
Companies are also upping the ante on amenities to draw people back in. “They are asking, ‘How do we entice people to come back?’” says Hodge. “They are adding gyms, wellness areas, outdoor spaces, outside work areas and patios where you can take a call.”
A rendering of a corporate outdoor space designed by JSA Inc. Courtesy of JSA Inc.
McDonald says companies also trying to make common areas warmer and more welcoming. “The right type of furniture, lighting and indoor plants work to bring stress levels down. Yes, you are here to be productive at a professional level, but you’re used to being at home in your pajamas on the sofa. We are trying to combine the best of both worlds by having that collaboration in a setting that feels good.”
Stibler Associates designed a biophilic break room for returning office employees. JS Photography.
Allis agrees, saying he has seen a trend toward common areas with cushy chairs and large white boards, large screen TVs and support for video conferencing.
Scully says the home is limited in its facilities, and the office amenities will draw people and give them an escape from home. “We are social animals, and that is a crucial piece of why an office exists,” he says. “It creates a common bond and sense of purpose; the office is what makes the collaboration possible.”
McDonald says there’s a continuation of a trend that began pre-COVID toward creating a space that supports inspiration and reflects the company culture and branding, something you won’t get at a home office.
The Workspace of Tomorrow
Allis says work-from-home is here to stay. “To what degree, it is hard to say, but companies have found that they can be as productive with people working from home, that won’t change,” says Allis. As a result, “We have seen companies leaving Boston heading north and setting up smaller spaces than they had prior to COVID,” he says.
Hodge says virtual meetings will not go away either. “A weekly construction meeting at a job site two hours away makes no sense, and the hybrid, work-from-home allowing for that head-down focus you need at times is great,” she says.
McDonald and Scully see the focus on wellness driving greater attention to green building. Hodge says in the past, investing in eco-friendly elements often came down to the bottom line for clients, though it has always been a focus of her firm’s designs. Allis expects manufacturers are going to become more interested in green building and design because people are examining the materials around them more closely.
Even as companies attempt to make the office more appealing, many expect that the work-from-home and hybrid models are here to stay.
“Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility,” says McDonald. “Not just in the scheduling but in the infrastructure, including rooms with multipurpose furniture and proper location of hoteling spots. There is a layer that needs to happen from a space planning perspective. Then there are added layers of room reservation technology and cleaning protocols to consider.”
Allis says the type of workstation can vary depending on the space available, but overall, he is seeing less demand for storage because people are simply not in the office as much.
Savage says she sees more variety within spaces and different configurations spread around the space, not all one type of workstation or furniture.
Conference rooms, are a unique piece of the post-COVID puzzle, says McDonald. “We still need spaces, but we need fewer tables and a variety of choice, a space that doesn’t feel too big or too small and always with technology for videoconferencing, which in the past was often reserved for just one or two special rooms.”
“The trend is toward companies wanting tech built into their conference and meeting tables,” adds Allis. “That’s the first thing we do with a customer, is go over what they need; HDMI, CAT6, USB, every table we do now is tech-enabled.”
Even with flexibility at the forefront, the changeable nature of the pandemic affects design plans. “We had a project for a customer who wanted a space to host 150 people for town hall style meetings, then early on in COVID we questioned whether that would happen, and they asked for a redesign.” says Hodge. “But now they want to change it back, but with everyone going back to wearing masks again, who knows…it keeps changing.”