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Imagining a post-pandemic Florida workplace: smaller, cleaner, with fewer coworkers

Once workers are vaccinated and offices reopen, here’s how experts think they’ll change.
Work areas are spaced apart as part of preparations for employees returning to in-office work. Employees must request time to work in the building and capacity is limited to 40 people, at CBRE, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 in Tampa.
Work areas are spaced apart as part of preparations for employees returning to in-office work. Employees must request time to work in the building and capacity is limited to 40 people, at CBRE, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Dec. 30, 2020
Updated Jan. 8

There was a time when Mary Slatter couldn’t imagine installing extra hand sanitizer stations at Rivergate Tower in Tampa.

“I remember during flu season, other buildings had them up, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous,’” said the skyscraper’s property manager.

Today?

“They’re really valuable, especially the ones that stand on their own and can be moved,” said Slatter, who installed them in the tower’s garages and common areas. “I think they’ll stay up for a really long time. You can see as they come in the door, everybody naturally goes to them and gets hand sanitizer. They’re addicted to it now.”

Permanent hand sanitizer stations won’t be the only change workers notice as they head back to their offices, hopefully later in 2021 as the coronavirus vaccine spreads across America. As offices reopen, they may look and feel much different. The pandemic has accelerated certain workplace trends and brought on a few new ones that might stick around for years to come.

“It will be a point in this generation; it will have a 9/11 effect,” said Christopher Adkins, director of sales and marketing for the new JW Marriott Tampa Water Street and Tampa Marriott Water Street, which has installed sanitizer stations, plexiglass guards and other safety measures. “There’s a whole different dynamic that’s going to have effects for a long time. We’re just going to have to be ready to accommodate it.”

How will workplaces evolve as a result of the pandemic? We ran it by experts for their predictions.

Fewer coworkers

If there’s one thing almost everyone agrees on, it’s that in-office workforces will shrink, either due to downsizing or a desire to continue letting some staff work remotely.

Work areas are spaced apart as part of preparations for employees returning to in-office work. Employees must request time to work in the building and capacity is limited to 40 people, at CBRE, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 in Tampa.
Work areas are spaced apart as part of preparations for employees returning to in-office work. Employees must request time to work in the building and capacity is limited to 40 people, at CBRE, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

A September survey by commercial real estate services firm CBRE found that 73 percent of employers envisioned supporting a mix of in-person and remote work, and 67 percent of workers said that would be their preference.

“One of the things that has become pretty loud and clear, not just by our workforce but the workforce in general in our community, is that people want flexible options,” said Yvette Segura, a vice president with financial services company USAA, and chairwoman of the Tampa Bay Chamber. “They want the opportunity to engage with each other, with coworkers in the workplace, but not on a full-time basis every single day.”

Employees may feel more emboldened to push for such a shift. In an October study, Tampa staffing and professional services firm Kforce found that 20 percent of workers are looking for new jobs to improve their work-life balance, up from 13 percent in 2019. That could change how offices recruit. And it could prompt changes in how employers are willing to equip and reimburse those who work from home.

“It’s going to become increasingly important for employers to recognize what the demands of the workforce are,” Segura said. “If you’re going to attract and retain quality employees, you’ve got to be able to respond to those sorts of demands.”

Smaller offices

Even before the pandemic, companies were looking to downsize their real estate footprint. Offices that once required extra space for document storage and equipment have digitized, and many had shifted to a shared-workspace environment called “hoteling,” where employees are given a “free address” rather than a fixed workspace.

“It’s kind of like, first come, first served,” said Tyson Simon, a practice leader with Kforce. “There’s going to be this tendency toward, ‘We’re going to have this rotational staff, so it doesn’t make sense to have this dedicated office that’s not going to be utilized five days a week.’”

CBRE’s study found that more than 80 percent of workplaces are likely to implement at least a partial free-address system after the pandemic. Both short- and long-term, that will change companies’ real estate needs.

“When it pans out in the middle of next year, it’s going to be around 25 percent less space needed,” said Bill Adams, founder of Reimagine Office Furnishings in Tampa. “If you have existing space and your lease is ongoing, you have that space, and I think you’ll spread out. ... But once those leases come up, I guarantee you they’re going to aim for reducing office space.”

The upside for employees: A less crowded workspace could be a safer workspace.

“Hoteling, paired with more flexible in-office/work-from-home schedules, will provide the opportunity for users to space themselves comfortably and safely when they are in the office,” said Lis Galindo, a senior project manager with Real Building Consultants in Tampa.

A hand sanitizer dispenser is seen outside a room at the Tampa Marriott Water Street on Dec. 18, 2020.
A hand sanitizer dispenser is seen outside a room at the Tampa Marriott Water Street on Dec. 18, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

A cleaner environment

At Rivergate Tower, additional sanitizer stations aren’t the only changes. Slatter said cleaning crews have been doing a deeper clean every night (a move made possible because fewer offices and common areas are occupied).

Another large building, Amalie Arena, has installed 220 extra sanitizer stations, ultraviolet disinfectant lights over escalator handrails, and an upgraded, hospital-quality HVAC system.

From better ventilation to greener cleaning procedures, “everything’s on the table,” said Mike DiBlasi, managing director of CBRE in Tampa. “A lot of the bigger landlords have already started implementing ways to provide a more sanitary and cleaner environment. The mechanical systems in a building, and changes to the ways to provide cleaner air for everybody in the building, are things they’re looking at.”

Michael Malfitano of the Tampa law firm Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete said the Occupational Health and Safety Administration has been relatively quiet on workplace safety measures post-COVID-19, though that could change under a new presidential administration.

“What we may see is OSHA going off after employers who are not careful or not providing those type of protections,” he said. “I think more employers are going to have to require their employees to wear masks than they may already. They’re going to have to enforce that.”

Reimagine Office Furnishings has started marketing a device called Synexis, which filters the air and deploys antimicrobial gas designed to cleanse tight spaces of bacterial agents and smells. A single unit retails for around $2,500 to $4,200. Bobby Newman, co-owner of J.C. Newman Cigar Company in Ybor City, has one in his office.

“I think it’s a game-changer,” he said. “Potentially, just about every school, hospital or office could use this product. If it protects your employees and yourself, why wouldn’t you want to put it in?”

A refocus on employee well-being

Cleanliness is only one facet of worker well-being that employers will have to reconsider.

With more staffers working remotely, companies will have to invest in technology, like better audio and video equipment, to ensure all workers can work securely, productively and equally. To pay for it, companies might make cuts elsewhere — not just through real estate, but via travel and sales budgets, too.

It’s likely new technology, such as virtual reality, could emerge to service an expanded remote workforce.

“I haven’t seen a good product or tool out there to replicate three of us going into a room and getting up on a whiteboard, using Post-it notes and dry-erase markers and doing creative collaboration sessions,” said Kforce’s Simon. “Hopefully there’s some opportunity there for someone in the tech space to come up with something great.”

Until then, companies will need to make sure remote workers don’t feel disconnected — or even discriminated against for opportunities like advancement. Malfitano expects there to be workplace litigation tied to COVID-19, even if it’s hard to predict what it will look like. He also expects more workers across different fields to unionize.

“It actually might be harder for employers to avoid union organizing, just because the technology makes it easier to do it,” he said. “So we think there’s going to be more union organizing. We think employers are going to have to deal with that in the future.”