Contributed by Jake Suer, PE, Project Executive 
Current conversations are focusing on changes in the workplace demanded by the coronavirus. Having been in the construction industry for many years, I have seen a lot of offices, both new and old. I can tell you, a great number of the demanded changes were being recommended prior to the outbreak. In short, COVID isn’t singlehandedly changing our world; it is simply accelerating the changes to the evolving workforce.
What Is Office2020?
In my role as a Project Executive, I work closely with architects through the construction process. Earlier in my career, I worked with a firm that was leading a charge deemed “Office2020”—the workplace of the future. Designs contained large, open, collaborative spaces. No walls, no doors. Many Cincinnati offices use this style today.
After a few years creating these futuristic, open-air environments, I noticed clients requesting designs that brought back the ability to separate. Huddle rooms and phone booths were gaining in popularity. Isolated spaces were proving beneficial for mental health and focused work, in addition to the physical health we must prioritize right now. In the same way, many companies were already shaping remote work policies before the stay-at-home orders.
To be clear, the reality of COVID has pragmatic requirements. Huddle rooms meant to hold 3-4 people now function better for one-on-one meetings. Conference rooms need to get bigger, and to compensate, perhaps cubes or breakrooms need to get smaller. Converting spaces to change their function requires appropriate updates to air systems, the alarm systems, etc.
The trend of coworking spaces may be surprisingly timely. Some may shudder at the idea of sharing office space with strangers, but that is not how these spaces work in action. A recent downtown project, Novel Coworking, renovated the historic Hooper Building into several floors of coworking space. The entire facility is set up to accommodate smaller groups. Each suite has its own break area, offices, conference rooms; tenants are not interacting with the entire building. This particular client was ahead of the curve in planning the work space of the future.
Similarly, a current project in Norwood is converting the historic Fidelity Building into a first-floor event space and two stories of office space in white-box condition. Each floor has its own entrance, with controlled access to each floor. These plans were in place before COVID, but have become more valuable as companies seek to limit unnecessary physical interactions.
Cost Includes Value
The future of office environments is going to look different for every company. It is important that anyone making changes to their workplace has a team they can trust. With the economy still unsteady and companies making hard decisions, every dollar counts. But cost is more than materials and labor.
As we say in the field: There is always someone cheaper. But cost includes final functionality, schedule, and the long term value the client receives. I take pride in my role analyzing functionality. Will a proposed solution meet the needs of the space, the budget, the schedule, the brand, the employees? Bottom lines will and must remain important, but a versatile, flexible space where employees feel safe is more important now and into the future.
The best projects have the client, architect, and construction team at the table throughout the process. Open communication ensures everyone’s priorities are aligned and all are satisfied with the final product.
It may seem like everything has changed because of COVID. But several key factors have been true before and will hold true:
- Versatile, flexible spaces are vital in preparing a workplace for whatever the future holds. Understanding how your employees interact and function will maximize office efficiency.
- Understanding how your employees interact and function will maximize office efficiency.
- Cost and Value are intertwined throughout the design/construction process
- The safety of the community and staff is paramount.
I love what I do because of the teamwork required, the way that everyone has each other’s back. I build every day, not just structures but relationships and communities. We were, we are, and we will continue to be all in this together.
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