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Business: Did the Pandemic Finally End the Open Floor Plan?

Created as a way to boost collaboration, open floor plans started to fall out of favor even before the pandemic, in part because workers still found ways to form barriers.

NEW YORK – Popular among millennials and meant to encourage collaboration and innovation, open floor plans have been popular for years. But fears over health safety since the coronavirus pandemic and anxiety over working in close proximity to others may force landlords and business owners to rethink how work spaces are designed.

“There is no definitive direction one way or the other by the market. Everyone is taking it a little cautiously at this point,” said Phil Schenkel, executive vice president at the Jones Lang LaSalle, Inc., (JLL) Lehigh Valley office in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. JLL is a commercial real estate services firm with headquarters in Chicago and offices world-wide.

“People are planning to reuse what they currently have” at least for now, he said.

Social distancing in office spaces can involve staggering the times employees are in buildings, adding hard wall spaces, or repositioning work stations to further spread them out.

While some firms are looking at existing layouts and making modifications to allow for better employee social distancing, there are other companies in the planning stages for offices that are taking the opportunity to rethink how those spaces will be used, Schenkel said.

“A lot has to do with the industry type, their protocols for re-entry for employees and how they are handling that re-entry,” Schenkel said.

Common practices such as “density packing,” where businesses try to place as many employees as possible on the same floor, is no longer happening, nor is the concept of office “hoteling.”

“There is not a lot of office hoteling” of shared desktops, cubicles, offices or workspaces, according to Schenkel, who also believes this is a previous office management practice unlikely to return any time soon. Office hoteling provides a single set up in which multiple employees, typically at different times of the day or on different work days in the week, make use of necessary office space and desk resources.

Even with many employees working remotely, Schenkel said his clients have not abandoned a physical office space, at least for now.

“Many are pushing the decision to January either for bringing people back to the office or what [other] decisions they will make,” he said.

For companies in the middle of construction projects, rethinking floor plans could include tweaking layouts rather than a radical departure from the original plan. “It is an evolving process and so far, no one is taking the lead,” Schenkel said.

Wait and see

Christa Kraftician, director at Spillman Farmer Architects in Bethlehem, said most clients are taking a “wait and see” approach to how they’ll use or reconfigure office space use in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I thought there would be quite a bit more discussion. There hasn’t been any change now, because I think [business owners] are working toward the long-term and thinking maybe we’ll go back to where we were,” Kraftician said.

A Harvard Business Review article published online last year prior to the widespread coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., reported the unintended consequences of open floor plans actually suggested “less meaningful” interactions between employees.

The article said online platforms such as Zoom and WebEx, as well as text messaging, have made connecting with colleagues even if they are in other locations faster and easier.

And creating personal space, either with a headset or by ignoring requests for attention, may be subtle ways to avoid face-to-face contact with colleagues in an open office floor plan. The article suggested workers may use a form of what actors call “the fourth wall” to separate themselves from others in order to focus on a task.

Kraftician argued that many business sectors successfully use open floor plans to provide more open access to colleagues.

Will they come back?

She said office social distancing could ultimately come down to numbers. A natural spacing driven by where employees prefer to spend their workdays, working remotely or reporting to the office, could evolve and help remedy the issue, at least in the short term.

“I think they are waiting to see how many are coming back, how many are staying [remote], and we’re still waiting for the outcome of that,” she said.

Should a business decide on partial or closed office spaces, Kraftician said many open floor plans can be easily fitted with walls, providing there is enough space to accommodate a partitioned layout.

Evan Stone, executive director of Bucks County Planning Commission in Doylestown, said it is possible more employees will prefer individual offices if they return to the office.

There is a larger demand issue for commercial office space, according to Stone. Before the pandemic the commercial real estate market especially new office development in Bucks County had been “very, very anemic,” he said. “We have buckets of residential development, but office development had been less than 5%” of the market for at least the past three years or longer.

Firms that need to build may opt instead for low rise office suites going wide instead of tall and spread out on a property. Adding exterior windows and doors that open to the outside could also factor into the future of office development, according to Stone.

“People are going to need more space,” he said.

Others may consider a blend of work styles from office, to remote, to downsizing their square footage.

Kraftician said high-rise building successes like City Center in Allentown are helping to reinvent office and mixed-use markets, save precious natural resources and limit “urban sprawl,” an inherent problem with single-story office campus developments.

If Stone’s assertion is correct and the office real estate market and new development sector continues to sag, municipalities with dedicated commercial office or office development zoning may add overlay districts to allow flexible land uses and mixed-use development.

Overlay zoning districts are special ordinances placed over an existing district to allow for different uses under certain approved circumstances.

With health and safety and economic sustainability at stake, and the wait for an eagerly anticipated vaccine available to the public, many questions about the future of office spaces remain.

“Will things ever go back to normal?” Stone said.

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