by Liz Wolf — Article originally published in the September/October 2020 issue of BOMA Magazine. Reprinted with permission from BOMA.
It’s been an amenities arms race for office building owners to provide wow-worthy spaces to prospective tenants, including upscale fitness centers, chic lobbies and even golf simulation rooms and rock-climbing walls. Tenants have been investing in workplaces that will get talent through the door and keep it.
These once sought-after amenities, however, are perceived very differently during the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, amenities spaces are historically high-traffic, high-touch areas focused around engaging employees and creating connections to the office space.
Due to the coronavirus, the focus has pivoted to health and safety around stricter cleaning protocols, limited occupancy, social-distancing requirements and traffic control. Property management teams are stepping up to reimagine amenities spaces and also create new virtual experiences as health and safety take center stage.
New technology at the forefront
Workplace amenities post-COVID-19 will feature technology that reduces physical contact in common areas. Employees are looking at elevator buttons and door handles in ways they never have before.
That may include keyless entry and touch-free elevators, soap and paper towel dispensers, faucets and break room refrigerators. Experts say easy-to-clean surfaces and antimicrobial materials will become the norm. Employees will follow new cleaning routines before and after using amenities, and it will be well-documented the last time spaces were cleaned.
Meanwhile, heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems are being upgraded everywhere to bring in more fresh air and provide more ventilation to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Even available apps can communicate indoor air quality levels as individuals walk into a building.
“Employees can use their phone to understand everything about their building,” says Mike Palladino, CBRE’s investor lead for Host, the company’s workplace engagement platform. “They can use their phone to access the building, their suite or the amenities spaces. They can reserve a spot in the elevator system and be notified when the elevator arrives, so they’re not waiting in the elevator bank for 15 minutes.”
This app is a destination dispatch system that users scan on their smartphone. The elevator knows your floor and takes you there without having to push any buttons. It’s also a way to limit the number of people in an elevator. Already a feature in some markets, this system is becoming far more popular in the wake of the pandemic.
These amenities are about “making sure people can still do their jobs effectively and safely, because if they don’t feel like they can, they’re not going to want to come into the office,” Palladino adds.
Following are other amenities that property teams are implementing during the health crisis that experts say could be here to stay post-COVID-19.
A new way to bond as employees work remotely
Since traditional happy hours or office yoga classes have gone by the wayside during the pandemic, property management teams are finding other ways to boost employee morale and interaction among co-workers. “Even pre-COVID, we were starting to think about ways to engage with people while they were at home and make them feel connected back to the community and building,” Palladino notes.
For example, CBRE is working with on-site property management teams or third-party wellness providers to offer tenants online fitness classes. They’re also lining up online cooking classes and trivia nights, as well as virtual museum tours and concerts. Other companies around the country have held remote talent shows and virtual happy hours or promoted “step challenges”—walking competitions based on how many steps are taken throughout the day—to embrace friendly competition and raise money for charities.
This team bonding that’s occurring via Zoom is expected to continue even as employees return to the office. “It’s really taking the traditional model of not everyone is going to be in the office (and may return using a hybrid model), yet we can still support them during the workday and also engage with people virtually throughout the different shifts of their life,” Palladino explains.
Virtual communication is key
The pandemic means millions of people are working remotely, which significantly impacts office markets. Chicago’s office market occupancy, for example, is hovering around 10 to 15 percent, notes Neil Pendleton, CBRE’s senior managing director of the downtown Chicago Investors Services business.
Since many employees aren’t back in the office, “we need another way to communicate with our tenants as to what’s happening in the buildings,” Pendleton says. “What are management and ownership doing to prepare and make sure tenants feel that whenever they’re ready to go back to the office space, they’re walking into a safe space?”
Pendleton adds that tenants, for example, can view videos of such preparation: “We’re able to communicate through technology. We want to welcome people back warmly and make sure that they have an optimized experience.”
Beefed-up concierge services
Concierge services that were once considered luxury will become routine. “We’ve all gotten very used to getting things delivered,” says Brian Harnetiaux, BOMA Fellow, executive director of asset management at USAA Real Estate. “Now, everything will be delivered and mobile.”
For example, Harnetiaux anticipates increasing demand for on-site car washes, oil changes, windshield repair and even fuel trucks that fill tenants’ cars with gasoline during the workday. “Everything is as mobile as possible, so you don’t have to run errands and can limit contact with people as much as possible,” he explains. Harnetiaux also sees grocery delivery to offices becoming the norm.
Additionally, employees have to get to their jobs despite concerns about public transportation. CBRE’s Host program is helping create safe carpooling and shuttle services for tenants. It also has built relationships with on-demand consumer transportation companies, like Uber and Lyft, and bicycle and scooter rentals. “It’s almost like transportation amenities that are optimized at the building level, so people can get to and from work with more optionality than ever before,” Palladino explains. “It’s all under the umbrella of the building, and the property management business vetted the operational experience with those companies.”
Outdoor amenities are increasing
While outdoor amenities were popular pre-COVID-19, they’re anticipated to play an even bigger role in the tenant experience as health and safety become top priorities post-pandemic. Outdoor spaces offer fresh air, distancing and minimal contact of shared surfaces. They include outdoor food courts, meeting and dining spaces, sport courts and jogging paths. USAA Real Estate is working with architecture firm Gensler to design an office building in southern California, for example, that will feature outdoor terraces and balconies for tenants to open up large sliding doors and allow fresh air into their space.
Employers should embrace outdoor space for meetings and focus work to provide a new, engaging experience for employees to interact while safely distancing, notes Anthony Brower, AIA, LEED Fellow, director of sustainable design and senior associate at Gensler. “We have several projects in Los Angeles—which is almost the perfect climate—that are providing terraces and other outdoor spaces,” he says. The adjacent spaces switch between natural and mechanical ventilation. “Integrating movable walls into the envelope opens up a 10-, 15- or even 50-foot expanse between columns to make an indoor space an outdoor space,” Brower explains.
When the door systems are open, the mechanical system shuts down and a natural ventilation system takes over. Fans are integrated into the air circulation path. Brower has even been talking to clients about carving out outdoor spaces into high-rise office towers. For example, a conference center could be built on the perimeter, but without any windows.
“It’s literally taking out the windows, upgrading the durability of your interior furnishes to withstand rain and the elements, and you have an outdoor amenity that’s still covered and within the confines of the building,” Brower states.
Cafeteria experience transformed
Food is a vital amenity and on-site cafés and delis are popular. However, standing in crowded lines no longer sounds appealing nor does sharing the office kitchen. COVID-19 safety protocols are changing how food is served and delivered in buildings. For example, food will likely be pre-packaged and paid for through cashless transactions. Lunch hours will be staggered. Some building locations are offering healthy options via touchless vending machines and food trucks with contact-free delivery.
The use of apps to order will play a huge role. Third-party delivery providers are partnering with office building management to offer delivery options. Minimizing deliveries in and out of buildings, and routing them through contactless points of entry and exit, is critical.
Big, crowded conference rooms are out
Despite many COVID-19-related changes, employees still need workspaces that promote creativity and collaboration. Large conference rooms will be reconfigured into more open meeting spaces. Cafeterias and employee lounges can be used as makeshift workspaces so employees can spread out.
Reopened workplaces will look different in the new normal and devising strategies to help tenants and their employees feel safe when they return will be key. “You want to make sure that people feel safe and secure when they come to the building, and then you want to help them be as productive as possible, so they want to continue to come back to the office,” Palladino notes.
If they’re using a hybrid model, he continues, you don’t want them to feel disconnected when working from home.
“We’re really trying to figure out how to take existing amenities and operationalize those accordingly, but also augment those with some of these virtual amenities that either didn’t exist or didn’t seem essential before this year,” Palladino explains.
Even when the current health crisis is over, tenants may find they enjoy the new access to fresh air and the flexibility that virtual socials offer, making these amenities standard even after we’re all back in the office.
About the author
is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer with 30 years of business and commercial real estate reporting experience. She previously served as editor of the Minnesota Real Estate Journal.