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Q&A with EUA's Heather Turner-Loth: The New Math of the Office

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Q: What are the top changes that the coronavirus pandemic has made in office planning?

 “According to Gallup, only one in four remote workers wants to return to the workplace once restrictions are lifted. This new perspective of the workforce coupled with increased productivity levels at some organizations, has many of our clients re-evaluating what their workforce returns may look like long term. 

“On the other side of that discussion, we are also hearing clients say their teams must be together long term in order to support a sales cycles or innovate the next product or service.  When it comes to planning –  pre-pandemic and post –  the formula should remain the same. Businesses should plan to align people (culture), place and technology to best support their business goals and objectives. 

“What we believe will shift due to the pandemic is a greater offering of flexibility to teams and individuals, providing them more autonomy in where and how they work best. We don’t believe the office will go away.

“For some organizations, this may mean the 'office' becomes more of a collaboration hub with a wider variety of technology enabled spaces where employees leverage workplace environments for connecting with one another and innovating together as the primary use of space, while a remote location is leveraged for their focused work. For other organizations, traditional office settings, whether with private offices or open workspaces, may still offer the best opportunity for teams and individuals to do their best work. 

“EUA is currently working with an organization who is looking at testing free address (individual employees do not have assigned desks) during their transition back. This would be part of their plans for increased flexibility and empowerment of employee choice and control to work when, how and where they deem best for their work. 

“The space will have a variety of options, zones, open space and private space for employees to choose from and leverage as they connect with teams or perform individual work. For this company, they have a unique opportunity to test and adjust as employees transition back in phases. They plan to involve employees, monitor productivity and provide feedback, to determine the best solution for their teams and individuals long term.”   

Q: We have heard for years about the open office concept. How will the pandemic change that trend? Will there be more cubicles?

“Can we first start with avoiding trends when it comes to workplace design? We will find ourselves on the pendulum of office design versus a design solution that best supports the way unique teams and individuals work. Culturally, no two companies are the same, and I would venture that neither are their business objectives. Why should their workplaces have the same design?

“When it comes to the pandemic influencing open office concepts, I believe we will see more visible cleaning regimens and have more candid conversations around behaviors within the workplace. One reason why open office got a bad rap in the past was due to a lack of change management around new behaviors employees were to have in an open office environment in order for that open office environment to succeed. 

“We may also see a de-personalization of desks; the family photos and tchotchkes are dust collectors. However, we do not see higher cubicles coming back. Higher cubicles can have an adverse effect on perceived safety within the workplace and there is no scientific proof that higher cubicles can safeguard employees from the spread of Covid-19.”

Q: Is the office water cooler and shared kitchen area a thing of the past?

“Will on-site amenities be a thing of the past? No. We believe that these settings will continue to play an integral role in an organization’s ability to attract, engage and retain their employees. Will the traditional, ‘my cup and everyone else’s cup touches the same surface in order to retrieve water’ equipment be modified or advanced with technology; certainly. We do foresee modifications happening, but we do not see these types of amenities simply going away. 

“Let’s just take a moment and consider the importance of the office ‘water cooler’. It’s a place to grab your water, sure. It is also the place to catch up on last weekend’s adventures or relive the Sunday football game highlights. It’s the place where catching up from yesterday’s meeting or sharing a process learning tip can also happen. 

“The ‘water cooler’ and other destination places within the office are places for people to collide and recent studies are showing that those chance encounters and interactions between knowledge workers can elevate performance. So, as companies consider their offices and the purpose for the office, destination places may further increase to support an interactive hub for employees to connect when they are in the office."

Q: Will companies want/need less office space as a result of the growing work-from-home option?

“We are hearing from many clients, as they look at more dispersed workforces or increased flexibility for employees, that they are looking at de-densifying space and looking to explore lower utilization of their spaces. Does this automatically mean less of a footprint; not necessarily because it is too soon to tell and goes back to the importance of aligning people, place and technology with an organization’s business objectives and goals. 

“There is a role to an office supporting culture and engagement and studies show, higher engagement can lead to increased sales, decreased absenteeism, increased productivity, etc. The cost of lost culture and engagement may outweigh the cost of real estate longer term."

 Heather Turner-Loth is business development practice leader for Eppstein-Uhen Architects.

Milwaukee Business Journal