The Future of Office Space


I ask myself this question every week, knowing this is not something I can solve with a quick Internet search. We are in a crisis without precedent, and the logistics of getting back to working with colleagues in person is going to look different for every company. So rather than spend time searching for an answer, I decided to convene a group of experts and talk about how to frame the question. Last week we all met on Zoom, with a group of 30 business owners to share ideas about what comes next. The event was presented by Business for a Better Portland (BBPDX), and Ashley Henry (executive director) was on hand to kick off the introductions. Our panelists included:

We started the session with an icebreaker related to World Emoji Day (July 17th) and then turned to a more serious question: “What is something your team does together that is difficult to do remotely?” In breakout sessions, the consensus was that communicating on Zoom and Slack offers less opportunity to engage on a human, informal level. It’s a loss on a personal basis and can also make it harder to get work done. Another participant made the point that your work space is a representation of your brand, and there’s only so far you can go with a virtual background. Bringing people together in person helps build confidence that a team can get the job done.

The discussion then turned to some individual questions for the panelists about returning to work in an office. I’ve paraphrased their responses below:

What are some best practices for asking employees to make a significant schedule change that would apply in this situation?

Katrina: Assuming it is safe to do so, employees may return to work using a staggered schedule to allow spacing in the office, or a phased approach based on priority. Employers should consider who is essential to have in the office, but also individual needs of employees such as child care, transportation, and any fears about returning to work in person. Some employees may want to delay a return to work due to legitimate health vulnerabilities while others may volunteer to be among the first to return. After gathering input, employers should develop a process for scheduling work hours/location and apply it consistently.

How can design changes to existing office spaces support employee health & productivity?

Eric: We have developed a series of sketches (see below) for design changes that will be desirable in a world with the worst of the pandemic behind us, but still many concerns about public health. Workstations in open office areas may be surrounded by taller barriers made of a transparent material to maintain visibility. Video calls will likely still be happening, so some thought should be given to a nice looking backdrop. Conference rooms will have larger openings, and if possible operable windows for better ventilation. Open shelving and touch free fixtures will be desirable for kitchens. More break areas (with coffee and drinks) may be added throughout the office to limit distance travelled and offer space for collaboration.

What are some cultural differences between workplace public health attitudes in China vs USA?

Jazzy: After grad school, I moved to China to work at an architecture firm. In Chinese culture, windows are kept open to promote ventilation, which is seen as good for air quality, even in the winter. People just wore jackets and nobody complained (except me, the American). In the United States, we are so used to having a tightly controlled temperature in the office, but we may need to adapt to a situation where air quality and worker health override a need for absolute comfort.

For tenants that are looking for office space today, how have the goals shifted since pre-Covid times?

Olesya: I expect companies will use different strategies to achieve their goals. We are seeing increased interest in suburban office space, which for a comparable budget, may provide more space to maintain distancing than is the case with downtown locations. Another thing to consider is that employees working from home on a long term basis may need additional equipment or support that would normally be provided at an office location. There’s a cost ($$$) to this, and also a cost to not providing it (lost productivity).

Landlords will likely be facing an increase amount of vacancies over next couple years. Does this mean that tenants will be able to negotiate lots of concessions? Or is the answer more complex?

Jamaal: Landlords have a variety motivations. Some will aim for the highest possible occupancy and be willing to lower the monthly rent in the early years of the lease. Others may need to stick with a published monthly rate, but be open to negotiating on tenant improvement allowance or provide some free months rent as a signing bonus. The vacancy rate in commercial offices was already increasing before Covid and starting to become a buyers/renters market. However, I’ve seen signs that employees want to get back to work— before the latest round of Covid resurgence and civil unrest, the downtown commute traffic was trending back towards normal.

For building owners, what kind of spaces will be most rentable right now? Does this require a re-thinking of building design?

Kevin: Strangely enough, I’m signing more restaurant tenants than ever, though these are takeout food businesses. Looking ahead, one thing that will matter a lot is HVAC. I love the idea of a sweater revolution. Operable windows used to be a security concern, but will now be seen as a huge benefit. However, buildings take two years to make and I don’t want to over-react. I’m still seeing lots of interest for office spaces in our buildings, but the objectives have changed. I used to sign mostly tenants coming out of a garage or co-working space. Now I’m seeing more tenants moving away from downtown to a neighborhood location.

Following the panel discussion, we broke into smaller groups to find out what attendees would like to do (or may already be doing) as a first step to getting back to work in their office. Here are some highlights from these conversations:

  • provide colored wristbands to help employees signal their level of comfort with having others approach them in the office.
  • split employees into cohorts that spend 4 days in the office, and 10 days out of the office.
  • plan events outdoors, which is easy to do in the summer, but winter is coming so buy a raincoat.

I can’t say this workshop gave me an “answer” about the future of office space, but it sure was helpful to hear a calm assessment of the situation from panelists who know a lot more than me about human resources, workspace design, and real estate. You can see for yourself by watching the main session recording. If you stick around to the end, you’ll hear a few other interesting points that aren’t covered above:

  • operable windows and the feasibility of retrofits
  • splitting larger work groups into multiple “outpost” offices centered in neighborhoods
  • health “pledges” and the blurring of personal and professional lives

Do you have any questions, ideas or resources to share on this topic? If so, click over to BBPDX Switchboard and scroll to the comments section to join the discussion.


Joshua Cohen is a Principal at Fat Pencil Studio