The coronavirus pandemic may mean the end of the open-air office as we know it
John Sowell, Idaho Statesman
Employees could see major changes in their work spaces when the coronavirus pandemic wanes and companies begin bringing workers back to the office.
Long rows of open desks desks may no longer be the norm. Cubicles are likely to be larger and more spread out to allow social distancing of at least 6 feet. Glass shields may be installed to protect workers from cough and sneeze particles flying through the air. And workers might find that cubicle walls have risen to provide a physical barrier.
“Before the pandemic, we would have a client call and they would want to get as many bodies in the room as possible, what we call space optimization,” Scott Galloway, president of Office Environment Co. in Boise, told the Idaho Statesman. “Now they want to know how to keep their people safe and to help them feel safe.”
Office Environment, known as OEC, is Idaho’s largest dealer of office furniture. The company also designs work spaces, and many of the employers who have come calling recently are companies where OEC designed the office space to begin with.
Clients are asking two basic questions: “How do we get our people safely back to work? And what fundamental changes do we need to make in the workspace long-term, so that the next time this happens there’s not an issue?” Galloway said.
OEC’s design team and its six-member sales team have been swamped, Galloway said.
GLASS PANELS PROVIDE CORONAVIRUS PROTECTION
At Engineered Structures Inc., a Meridian construction company, Galloway’s staff added 1- and 2-foot glass panels on top of existing desk panels.
“We added the glass stackers on top of the panels as a solution to create some physical barrier distance between employees,” he said.
Another Boise company, Intermountain Design, has also been busy reconfiguring office spaces, co-owner Jay Nagel said.
Some of his clients have already begun bringing workers back into the office.
“Some people work in the office two days this week and three days next week, but they’re social distancing until we can get their workstation parts and get them reconfigured,” Nagel said.
Like Office Environment Co., Intermountain Design has installed a lot of cubicle barriers.
“People that bought the low-panel workstations are buying glass and plexiglas,” he said. “That makes it so if someone walks by and sneezes that it doesn’t go into someone else’s workstation.”
It seems likely that some companies that have gotten used to employees working at home, and are satisfied with their productivity, will opt to leave them there. That could save money and reduce the need for a large workspace.
OFFICE SPACE NOT LIKELY TO DISAPPEAR BECAUSE OF PANDEMIC
“Don’t bet that offices are dead,” Michael Ballantyne, managing partner of Thornton Oliver Keller Commercial Real Estate said by phone. “All COVID-19 did was accelerate office trends that were already occurring in terms of people working from home more.”
Nonetheless, the acceleration is unlikely to cause an exodus of companies from downtown Boise and other office centers, developers and commercial real estate brokers say. Demand for office space was high before the pandemic and is expected to rebound.
“I can tell you my team couldn’t wait to get back to the office,” Ballantyne said. “A lot of people either don’t have the technology or they don’t have a good home work environment. They have small children at home or their parents and they just can’t be as productive even when they have all the technology.”
Many deals that were in the pipeline have stalled, Ballantyne said, as banks have focused on issuing Paycheck Protection Loans to businesses struggling because of the pandemic. Many buyers have asked for three- to six-month extensions, he said.
“But we only saw a 5% termination rate” for deals from the Treasure Valley to Idaho Falls, he said.
MELALEUCA WEIGHS: LEAVE WORKERS HOME OR RETURN TO OFFICES?
Melaleuca Inc., the Idaho Falls-based wellness-products maker, employs about 800 people at call centers in Idaho Falls and Rexburg. They answer questions about the company’s product line.
CEO Frank VanderSloot said he doesn’t know which work environment is better.
“Some people get distracted at home, but others are telling me they get more work done because they’re not interrupted as often,” VanderSloot said by phone.
But he said it’s harder to feel valued as an employee working at home and to feel that you’re a member of a team.
“That’s exactly what my people are telling me — they don’t feel the camaraderie, the feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood, the feeling of family,” he said.
He said his company hasn’t decided what to do, but he predicts many companies will continue to have employees work remotely.
“I wouldn’t want to be investing in office building space and high rises,” VanderSloot said. “In the big cities, I think some of them are going to go empty.”
AHLQUIST: COMPANIES SEEK MORE COLLABORATIVE SPACE
A Boise developer and a partner in one of the largest office building owners in Boise do not believe that will happen in the Treasure Valley.
“I’m not hearing that from a lot of the companies we deal with,” Tommy Ahlquist, CEO of Ball Ventures Ahlquist, said by phone. “The productivity of working from home is different than in an office. Collaboration on a Zoom call is not the same as collaboration in person. And I think the creativity and the human element of life is part of what makes business business.”
While some employees keep working at home, those who return could get more space. Twenty years ago, the average office worker had about 250 square feet, Ballantyne said. Before the pandemic, that had shrunk to 150 square feet, he said.
But Ahlquist said the pendulum has already swung over the past 10 years back to more room for employees.
“We’ve seen people go away from the really tight cubes to more collaborative spaces,” he said. “In a lot of our modern facilities, open spaces are pretty spacious and may have the employee in mind. It’s not like you’re shoving sardines in a can right now.”
Ball Ventures Ahlquist has developed several commercial projects in the Treasure Valley, including Ten Mile Crossing in Meridian, Pioneer Crossing in downtown Boise and Barber Station in East Boise.
“In the short term, I think there’s a lot of fear and anxiety,” Ahlquist said. At the same time, “there’s a lot of optimism out there that this thing is temporary, and when it’s over we’re going to keep on going.”
BOISE OFFICE SPACE LIKELY TO REMAIN IN DEMAND
Scott Schoenherr, a partner in Rafanelli & Nahas, a Boise commercial real estate development and management company that owns the Boise Plaza, says office space will continue to be coveted.
“What I’m hearing from the experts now is that we’ll still need office space, which seems counter to what a lot of people think,” Schoenherr said by phone. “And I think everyone’s going to want a little bit more space, so conference rooms are going to be bigger, break rooms are going to be bigger and everyone is going to want a bigger cube or maybe even an office.”
He predicts that Idaho, which has long been attractive to people moving from California, Washington and Oregon, will get looked at by more companies looking to relocate from larger cities.
“The only thing stopping companies from moving to Boise is their ability to hire good people,” he said. “That’s why companies have stayed in the Bay Area of San Francisco, because there’s such a bigger pool of employees to choose from. What we’re seeing now is that companies that are talking about moving to Boise or Reno or Colorado Springs have more employees that are volunteering to move with them.”
Construction on Rafanelli & Nahas’ 10-story office building at 11th and Idaho streets, across from the Boise Plaza, continues. The 191,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed on time in November.
During the pandemic, potential tenants who had been talking to Schoenherr about leasing space in the building stopped. But that has changed.
“They’re all waking up now, so I’ve been giving lots of tours,” he said.