The immediate need at the start of the pandemic was to get people away from a contagious and little-understood virus. Offices nationwide quickly emptied. According to Kastle Systems, in 2020 office usage in ten major markets went from 99% in early March to just 14.6% by mid-April. 

Now, offices are coming back. Downtown towers and suburban business parks are gradually returning, but with a twist: The office standards that were common in 2019 have evolved. Today there’s a large and visible movement toward flexibility, arrangements that complement the changing needs of the post-pandemic workforce.

Tech Companies Go Back to the Office

It might seem that the most-likely candidates for remote workers are employees at the Nation’s huge tech companies. Between them, Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Meta (Facebook), and Microsoft occupy 96.4 million sq. ft., according to CoStar. They own 31 million sq. ft. of the total outright, and yet they’re lining up more.

  • Google recently purchased additional office space in Manhattan for $2.1 billion. 
  • Apple said in 2021 that it “plans to invest over $1 billion in North Carolina and will begin construction on a new campus and engineering hub in the Research Triangle area.”
  • Amazon is locating its massive HQ2 project in Crystal City, VA, a quick Metro trip to downtown Washington in one direction and the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in the other. 
  • Microsoft says it’s “modernizing workplaces across all regions where we do business. We’re making this investment for our employees to provide an exceptional place to work and create greater collaboration and community.”
  • Meta, Facebook’s corporate parent, signed the largest 2021 office lease in the U.S. according to the San Francisco Chronicle, 719,037 sq. ft. in Sunnyvale. The paper adds that “the tech giant also leased 520,000 square feet in Burlingame. It’s clear evidence that the rise of remote work hasn’t eliminated the tech industry’s voracious demand for office space.”

Why Flex Space is Growing

“Debates over whether workers should be required to return to the office can be thorny because some employees say they have been happier and more productive at home,” explained The New York Times in February. “One way companies are trying to lure them back is by splurging on prime office space with great amenities.”

The paper added that “Big Tech executives say that office expansions are to be expected and that modernized buildings will probably be spaces for people to collaborate rather than stare at screens.”

Workers are Returning

Shakespeare said “what’s past is prologue,” meaning that what happened before impacts what happens next. It’s the trends and economics of the past two years — the worker shortage and the search for a better life/work balance — which have set the stage for the new approach to commercial office space.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers are returning. Employment stood at 155.5 million in March 2020 and fell to 133.4 million in April of that year.

By February 2022 the labor market had radically improved and there were 150.4 million employees. While we’re not yet back to pre-pandemic employment levels, the gap is closing. For instance, 678,000 people joined the employment rolls in February.

Also in February, a study released by the Economic Innovation Group found that 85 major metro areas already have employment levels that exceed 2019 numbers, while 122 metros are likely to do so this year. Alternatively, 96 metro areas will probably reach 2019 employment levels next year, while 79 lagging areas will need more time to catch up. 

Life/Work Balance

While individuals are indeed returning to the workforce, there remains a great deal of turmoil. There are fewer people employed than in 2019. Equally important, among those who are back, many are looking for something different. The government says that in December, 4.1 million workers voluntarily left their jobs.

Hidden behind the employment numbers is the reality that attitudes have changed. The life/work equation is getting the once-over, even at the top of the food chain.

“The urge to resign is not confined to frontline workers,” said The New York Times in February. “Chief executives, chief financial officers and other C-level executives are walking off the job, too. And while some are inevitably leaving one role to take a new one, some are dropping out altogether, at least for a bit.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic brought on high levels of upheaval and introspection, causing people to reevaluate their priorities,” said Indeed, the big jobs site. 

“Employee resignations,” said the Recruiting News Network in January, “are at an all-time high in the U.S. as nearly 40 million workers resigned from their positions during 2021 as part of ‘The Great Resignation.’ Resigners are evaluating their priorities, and choosing to walk away from their jobs in search of better pay, relief from burn out and looking to combat stagnant careers.”

What we have here is something more than a financial revolution. Yes, wages are rising, and sure, job openings are widespread, but an equally important concern — and a big reason behind The Great Resignation — is the growing effort to find a better life/work balance. 

“People aren’t just quitting their jobs” say Arianna Huffington and Jen Fisher, writing in Fortune, “they’re rethinking what they want out of life.”

According to Goodfirms, employees who “planned their weeks based on work calendars, socialized only on weekends and off-days, skipped parent-teachers meet for work, or compromised leaves for compensation benefits have a new perception towards work and life.”

What are employers doing to accommodate new employee perspectives, especially for the most talented and desirable workers? Part of the answer is that many are re-thinking the workplace.

It’s Time to Flex

The headline change on the office front has been the move toward remote employment, working-from-home (WFH). In the fine print, however, the message is more nuanced. 

Flexible Locations

Before Covid, fewer than 5% of all full-time employees worked from home on a full-time basis. The number of full-time WFH employees will surely expand as the pandemic ebbs, but not as much as many believe. Instead, most employees will continue to work from an office location. The “flex” part is that more employees — but far from all — will work both from home and from an office setting.  

Microsoft, for one, says, “we recognize that some employees are required to be onsite and some roles and businesses are better suited for working away from the worksite than others. However, for most roles, we view working from home part of the time (less than 50%) as now standard — assuming manager and team alignment.”

Flex Office Buildings

With so much in transition, it follows that office buildings themselves will increasingly contain flex elements, space that can be readily used in different ways.

As offices fully re-open, expect to see more small conference rooms, additional shared — or co-working — spaces, and better ventilation systems. Look for heightened sanitary standards, staggered schedules to avoid elevator and parking lot delays, more no-touch entry and exit systems. Shorter leases for shared space will be more common, as will shared amenities that can be used by several organizations.

Safety and Security

More and more office buildings will have sensors and equipment to control access, not just in lobbies, but for all areas. 

According to The New York Times, “building apps are designed to connect office tenants to maintenance, security and logistics systems and community-building programs. They began gaining traction in 2018 as a way to make offices more efficient, and have taken off in the pandemic as employers try to entice workers back on site by making work-related tasks safe and convenient.”

The idea will be to create more productivity and efficiency by making office settings more attractive and encouraging communication and collaboration. Compared with 2019, the new office will be more welcoming, with better levels of utility and comfort.

At some of its East Coast locations, including 3001 Washington Blvd., 3003 Washington Blvd., One Washingtonian Center, Reston Square, Dulles Station East I, and Redwood Plaza, KBS has implemented the Simpli app. The app provides a highly connected workplace community — with accessibility to personalized services, office amenities and experiences, exclusive discounts and more. At Accenture Tower and RBC Plaza, KBS utilizes the HqO platform, which helps to better engage tenants and guests while providing tools to facilitate a flexible, safe, and tenant-first office environment.

Flexible Hours

The traditional standard has been workdays built around a 9 to 5 schedule, but that norm is now being challenged. 

Rather than iron-clad timetables, the new idea is to adjust schedules to better fit employee needs, to address the life/work issues that concern so many employees. If individuals can avoid stalled rush hours or drop off children more easily at school, then maybe that’s also a way to increase retention and productivity. Look for “concierges” and AI programs to schedule offices and facilities without overlap or conflict.

Flexible schedules might include several days a week at home and several at the office, or perhaps full weeks working from home every few months. 

Google, as one example, expects many employees to return to work in early April, 2022. According to Reuters, the company “will require employees back about three days a week in some of its U.S., U.K. and Asia Pacific offices, its first step to end policies that allowed remote work because of COVID-19 concerns.”

The New Vocabulary

As employers try to attract and retain employees, look for a new series of code words to emerge. 

Office settings will be flexible and hybrid. The workplace will stress creativity and collaboration. Employers will seek to build a sense of community, think of more shared activities and common goals. Facilities will be increasingly adaptable. The relationship between employers and the employed will be more and more balanced. Safety and security will include better HVAC systems, no-touch entries and exits, and staggered schedules in larger facilities. 

The best workplaces will be the ones where top employees — those with the talent and skills organizations most prize — thrive and remain. 

These are the settings where turnover is low, job satisfaction is high, top employees enjoy flexible schedules, and office environments are comfortable, productive, and adaptable to changing needs. Such offices will be the best locations in town because that’s where employees — and organizations — will be most likely to thrive in the post-pandemic economy.

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