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What will Delaware’s offices look like after COVID?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed all manner of things in public life over the last six months, but its effects on office workplaces may last even after the virus’s threat subsides.

Just what changes are coming to Delaware’s offices remain to be seen, as many are still largely empty of employees sent home by cautious employers. Landlords, tenants and designers have spent many weeks over the pandemic thinking about what may need to change permanently, and what aspects may only become a distant memory with some time.

One thing remains fairly certain for most involved in Delaware’s commercial real estate though: Workers will return to their desks at some point. A recent survey of Wilmington-area employers found that 62% of employers didn’t plan on using remote work long term, and a recent survey of U.S. office workers from leading global architecture, design, and planning firm Gensler found that only 12% wanted to work from home permanently.

Empty office space | PHOTO BY KATE SADE

“While the knee-jerk reaction would be that everybody’s just going to work from home from now on, I don’t see that happening,” said Brian DiSabatino, CEO of Wilmington-based construction management and design firm EDiS. “First and foremost, I don’t think you can ever discount the need for and the benefit of human-to-human interaction.”

That’s a belief shared by Chris Buccini, co-president of the Buccini/Pollin Group (BPG) who oversees the full-service real estate firm’s 6 million square feet of office space in the Philadelphia suburbs, Pittsburgh, northern Delaware, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.  Speaking during the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting, he noted that BPG returned all employees, who were able, to its offices in mid-June.

“We’re a bit lonely here right now,” he said, referring to other employers’ reticence to send back most workers. “But the point really was for us to sort of create a re-entry plan that works for all of our buildings and to figure out what was working and what wasn’t working.”

While the roughly 100 workers who returned to BPG’s headquarters in the Brandywine Building in downtown Wilmington were nervous for about two days, Buccini said, they quickly found their “new normal.”

DiSabatino said that while some features like plexiglass barriers are a constant reminder to employees of the pandemic, he doesn’t expect them to stick around forever. Shared amenities like coffeepots, utensils and snacks that have disappeared in the COVID-19 era will also return in the future, he opined.

“The marketplace will ultimately want those amenities returned, but we’re going to have to deliver [them] in a more creative way,” DiSabatino said.

While shared workstations may remain post-pandemic, the employees may rotate days of the week that they are present and using the computer, cleaning it at the end of the day.

“You won’t have five or 10 people sitting across a narrow table with a laptop from each other unless they begin to create some physical barriers,” he said.

Buccini also said that rotations of employees in and out of the office on specified days, a common safety measure for offices right now, may last even after the pandemic.

“Technology allows for that in today’s world,” he said. “I think that will allow companies to de-densify their workspace in the short term as they figure out longer term solutions about new workstations.”

Before the pandemic, Buccini said it was common for tenants to pack in employees at a density of one employee per 125 to 150 square feet.

“Real estate isn’t that expensive, so I think we’ll get back to people being one employee per every 200 or 225 or 250 square feet … I think the open work environment works; there’s just no need to pack people in so much,” he said, noting a Wilmington-area tenant that BPG is building a new office for recently asked to remove 50 workstations from its design.

DiSabatino noted that trends in office space design often shift decade to decade, but he’s never seen a single external force upend thinking like the pandemic.

“In my career we’ve seen the pendulum shift from low-densified, hard wall offices to cubicle spaces and then tabletops,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, coming out of the 2008 recession, we saw a massive reduction in office space, as people moved toward communal space. We always thought the pendulum would swing back, because it usually does, but we never thought it would swing back for this reason.”

Buccini, whose firm is currently designing a 28-story office tower in Pittsburgh for FNB Bank, said that “there’s never been more conversation about what a bathroom or an office space should look like.”

Some employers have announced that they are doing away with communal bathrooms in exchange for single-unit stalls, although Buccini said he wasn’t sure if that trend would last forever.

Prospective tenants that may have once sought upper-floor spaces for their views are also now asking more about bottom-floor spaces in order to avoid have employees on elevators as much as possible, due to the risk of the virus’s transmission in confined spaces.

While many design aspects of offices may change in the future, one may even be where offices are located and how they operate. The satellite office model isn’t new but may get renewed attention as companies look to diversify their client base while also cutting real estate costs.

“The COVID situation has opened my eyes to the fact that maybe the future is not going to be one office with a lot of people, but several different locations that are convenient to employees,” said Dev Sitaram, president of Newark-based engineering, planning and surveying firm Karins and Associates that is eyeing further growth.

Sitaram said that may include renting space in a coworking office, a growing trend for cheaper real estate, or leasing smaller offices. Karins opened its Exton, Pa., office after determining it was the right market and close to where several of its employees already lived.

Sitaram agreed that office space of some kind would continue to be needed for their work, and not just to house large-format printers and computer-aided design stations.

“The advantage of working in a physical office for us, as engineers, is the collaboration,” he said. “To bring up a large drawing on a large screen, and then talk about it and collaborate on it.”

By Jacob Owens


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