• David Greschler

Insights from Nicholas Willis at Hughes Marino: Planning and design for what comes next in CRE

COVID-19 has forever changed the way we think about all of our indoor spaces. Today it’s essential that commercial spaces be continually optimized for health and safety. Organizations like Hughes Marino, an award-winning commercial real estate firm, will be leading the way with advisory services for workplace design and strategy. I recently sat down with Nicholas Willis, the company’s Interior Planning Director, to get his insights into what we can expect to see in the months and years to come.

Hughes Marino is a commercial real estate firm that represents tenants in their lease and sales transactions. I lead our Planning and Design team, and our focus is on workplace space planning, design, and strategy. We help clients understand how their real estate decisions impact the design outcomes of their spaces, and offer end-to-end consultation services, from early-stage programming and planning to full design of commercial spaces.

Design strategy: Pre-pandemic

Prior to the start of the pandemic, design trends for commercial spaces centered around collaboration, productivity, and workspace efficiency:

  • Collaboration – Open meeting spaces and collaboration areas to make it easy for teams to gather and get work done, and videoconferencing capabilities to help connect workers based in regional or remote offices

  • Productivity – Setting up workspaces to best enable mobile technology use, including workflows and space adjacencies, ensuring that teams are located close to collaborators and support functions they need

  • Workspace efficiency– Creating space for open collaboration by consolidating individual workspaces and making them more dense

Today, workplace density is the issue

While the trends I described earlier are still truly relevant, the pandemic is forcing us to look at them from an alternate perspective:

  • Collaboration – Establishing a network infrastructure that can support full online collaboration (storage, file sharing, chat, online meetings, etc.) for the foreseeable future—or permanently

  • Productivity – In addition to the usual business productivity apps, online time tracking, cloud invoicing, workflow automation, and electronic document and contract execution help keep workers productive, regardless of their location

  • Workspace density – This is the most crucial area of focus for companies that will be bringing employees back into office buildings. The bottom line is that before employees can feel safe coming back into the physical workplace, dense, tight workspaces must be mitigated

Closures, scheduling, and space utilization

To keep workers safe, operations and design must work together. Companies are seeing their spaces in a new light, reevaluating what worked before and making necessary changes to adapt to the new normal.

As companies introduce employees back into workspaces, many are looking at staggering team schedules to keep building capacity light. One example of this might be a schedule in which only one-third of a site’s workforce is on the premises at any given time. They work onsite for a week, and then work remotely for two weeks while the remaining two groups cycle in and out. Other organizations are leading with design, reconfiguring spaces to increase physical distancing, and adopting new workspace elements to serve as protective barriers when distancing options may be limited.

Guidelines for The New Normal

There are still a lot of questions on how health and safety issues will evolve as we move through the pandemic. Planning, design, and innovative technologies must all work together to help us create the safest spaces possible.

Planning and design must remain flexible to be responsive to conditions and recommendations that are evolving on a near-daily basis. Factors to consider include:

  • remote working

  • virtual meetings

  • mobile tech

  • health and safety guidelines

Technology that supports healthy workspaces will help keep commercial buildings safe and adaptable as employees return to the office. Solutions needed include:

  • touchless security and access

  • health monitoring / temperature check interfaces

  • food vending

  • UV light sources

  • HVAC virus mitigation through filtration and air handling

  • software that interprets how people move through and use spaces

For organizations looking to evaluate new space options due to reduced onsite staff, virtual property touring will enable representative to safely evaluate potential new spaces without having to be physically present in each building on their shortlist.

So, what does the future hold?

At Hughes Marino, our role will be to help companies bring their existing workspaces into line with post-pandemic needs. We are starting with physical distancing analysis for safe capacity planning, ensuring that we are providing the most effective space use and reconfiguration to promote spreading out in the office. We’ll also consult with creating a staggered shift strategy for companies with larger numbers of returning employees.

Even though a space may initially be more sparsely populated at any given time than in the past, it should still be a dynamic, appealing place that fuels creativity, innovation, and productivity. If we’re repurposing larger common spaces (conference rooms, lounges, collaboration areas) to ease density in tighter areas, using modular accessories like barriers and partitions will help create more protected workstations.

Employees have told us over and over that what they miss most about going to work is their colleagues. To help co-workers interact safely upon returning to the workplace, we’ll be focusing on the concept of “physical distancing,” rather than “social distancing,” designing attractive, functional spaces where people can be physically apart, yet remain socially connected. Building a strong response

This has been an unprecedented time in history, and for our profession. The work we’re doing today has already been invaluable for informing CRE’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As our strategies evolve, what we find to be most effective (and even not so effective) will help us build the strongest possible response for the future.

We’re looking forward to seeing the innovation that comes from all this. We’re also especially excited about how technology like Nomad Go’s will help architects and designers reimagine spaces and systems based on accurate, real-time data. The more we can know about a space, the better we can optimize it to keep workers safe as they return to the workplace.

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