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Pandemic drives demand for new type of office

Once focused on collaborative spaces and flexible seating, workplace designers are now emphasizing sanitation and social distancing

The office space of the future is no more — or, at least, its pre-pandemic conception is changing.

Before COVID-19 swept the United States, offices were starting to emphasize movement and flexibility. Businesses planned to create more collaborative spaces and allow employees to rotate through different desks.

Now, however, offices are focusing on assigned work desks again, spacing between employees and amenities that can be activated without touch, as companies grapple with how to bring employees back — if at all.

Todd Maklary, director of development services for Colliers International, said the commercial real estate industry is still trying to figure out the most cost-effective and safe way to adapt offices. Many companies have not finalized plans yet. He said employees can expect to see evolving workplaces.

“The office space is definitely changing,” Maklary said.

Previous trends meant that employees were coming into contact more often.

A new form of office seating — some call it “flex or hot desking” — was also growing in popularity before the pandemic. Under this arrangement, employees would be assigned lockers instead of a fixed desk and could rotate through different work spaces, an arrangement aimed at increasing morale.

Now, Maklary said businesses are looking to place workers in every other cubicle, or at the very least, install panels between workspaces. They may need more space to accommodate the same number of employees from before the pandemic.

Some companies are turning to high-tech solutions to create cleaner workspaces. Feldman Equities has installed nano septic elevator buttons with crystalline covers that are essentially “self cleaning” in its buildings, said vice president Mack Feldman.

The company also is trying out ultraviolet lighting that kills microbes and plans to incorporate ionization systems after testing in common areas and “individual tenant spaces.” The systems would be installed in buildings’ heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment and electrify the air, killing mold, microbes and small insects. The company is also looking at using dry hydrogen peroxide gas, which is harmless to people in small amounts.

“We’re trying to figure out what works,” Feldman said.

The company also has leaned heavily on easy-to-implement, common measures such as giving out masks, limiting capacity in elevators, displaying markers to show six feet of distance and encouraging social distancing. Feldman said the company’s property management team has helped lead efforts to create safer office spaces during the pandemic.

“They’ve done a really tremendous job,” he said.

The pandemic is also shaping how new office buildings are being built.

In Midtown Tampa, a development in progress on the northeast corner of N Dale Mabry and W Cypress St, project managers recently announced plans to design a “post-COVID” office on site.

Dubbed “The Loft,” plans for the building were first revealed in 2019, but its design has shifted with coronavirus prevention in mind.

Many of its features are automated, including faucets, flush valves, soap dispensers and hand dryers, according to a Bromley Companies press release. The building will have automatic doors and use antimicrobial paint resistant to viruses, mold and certain bacteria.

A few of the building’s components also will encourage social distancing. The Loft will have multiple staircases with automatic doors accessible via key-fob to decrease elevator use and an outdoor space on the second floor for meetings and small gatherings.

As Florida’s heat can make opening windows impractical, designers looked for different ways to increase ventilation, Bromley Companies CEO Nick Haines said. In particular, The Loft is designed with 15-foot ceilings and will also have ultraviolet light conditioned air.

Haines said the building’s design reflects the development’s overall focus on health and wellness.

“We really tried to extend some of our thinking,” Haines said.

Good ventilation and social distancing are two of the most important aspects of a post-coronavirus building, said Michael Teng, an associate professor of molecular medicine at the University of South Florida.

With workers in an office for an extended amount of time, “You’re going to build up respiratory droplets,” Teng said.

Thus, he said, it’s important for buildings to have good ventilation and to separate workers out as much as possible.

“If you can’t get space, you can get barriers,” he said. Rotating employees through the office in shifts can also help with social distancing, if it’s difficult to space workers at full capacity.

It’s also important for workers to wear masks, even at their desks, in order to avoid spreading respiratory droplets both through the air and on surfaces, Teng said.

“For me, cleaning the area is a little less urgent if everybody’s wearing a mask,” he said.

Still, he said offices should continue to sanitize work spaces and employees should wash their hands frequently.

Maklary, of Colliers International, said companies are still adjusting their strategies and figuring how to bring employees back to the office, as well as how many to allow at a time. However, he believes that offices are here to stay, though with some changes.

“I think it’s altered,” he said. “How much has probably yet to be determined.”

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