Conventional wisdom has it that the COVID-19 pandemic changed forever the look of offices and the way they are used.
Interviews with a handful of local experts suggest general agreement with the enormity of the changes, and that they will last. However, some voiced skepticism over how much of a role the pandemic played in these changes (other than to speed things up), how well business executives have handled them and even whether the changes are good for businesses.
“The pandemic simply accelerated things that were already taking shape in the way offices looked and functioned,” said Kelly Ennis, founder and managing principal of The Verve Partnership, an interior architecture firm in Baltimore. “Things like flexible schedules, workplace mobility and attention to health and wellness are finally in our everyday conversations.”
The long list of now-common changes, she said, also includes the addition of phone rooms, quiet rooms and social spaces, as well as both open and closed meeting rooms.
Although extensive, the changes to offices are only beginning, said Kate Kilmer, director of applied research and consulting for Steelcase, a national company that offers architecture, products and services for businesses.
“Building image and quality has become more important that it was pre-pandemic,” she said. “Many companies are right-sizing so they can afford better buildings for their employees to enjoy.”
T. Henson Ford, a senior real estate advisor with the Maryland-based MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate Services, agreed that the changes in offices have been sweeping. The open floor plans so popular prior to COVID, he pointed out, have been replaced by private offices and meeting spaces.
Meanwhile, on-site amenities in office buildings and parks have become “must haves,” he said.
Ford agreed with other experts that many of the changes are here to stay. That includes more employees working at least part-time from home – although, he pointed out, “recessionary pressures” have forced some companies to call workers back to the office.
The impact of the changes on businesses, Ford said, is mixed. While companies can attract and retain more talent by offering remote or hybrid work, he said, “many companies have complained about deteriorating company culture, collaboration and mentorship when dealing with remote work and lack of physical presence.”
The experts agreed that the changes have posed a challenge for those who build and own office space.
“Owners have been forced to invest more heavily into their buildings,” Ford said. Besides adding amenities, he said, some have granted rent concessions and increased tenant improvement allowances to retain tenants – and attract new ones.
The degree of difficulty for office owners, said Michael Singer, executive managing director of Newmark, a commercial real estate agency in Baltimore, depends on the type of offices they own.
Class A office space – which tend to be newer buildings in live-work-play locations such as Harbor East and Locust Point – have very low vacancy rates, he said.
But the class B or C buildings, often located in isolated suburban office parks with older buildings, are losing tenants, Singer said — “and not backfilling.”
However much offices have changed and however long those changes will last, those interviewed agreed that offices as a workplace will survive.
The office is not dead,” Singer said. “It’s alive and well and evolving at a very fast rate.”
Done correctly, he added, office space “can be a platform for so many things that can benefit a business. It can message the brand, mission and values. It can improve productivity. It can help employee retention and recruitment. It can be a source of great employee satisfaction.”
Others agree that this is an opportunity to make offices a more effective workplace.
“This is a phenomenal time for business leaders to assess and align their business objectives to multiple changing needs, including that of space,” Kilmer said. “It’s an important time to reflect on where you and your teams do the best work, and think about physical places in which your organization thrives.”
Business leaders, she said, need to make sure they balance the needs of their business with the needs of their employees – “to reflect on where you and your teams do the best work and think about the physical places in which your organization thrives.
“Tools of all kinds that enable work have evolved through the pandemic,” she said. “The office should be no different.”