Designing a new corporate office in the Age of COVID
Early in the pandemic the question of what offices would look like upon employees' return was on many people's minds, especially those in the real estate industry.
Renderings of open spaces reconfigured with plexiglass dividers and diagrams of traffic flow to allow for social distancing were widely published. Some firms even questioned the need for office space at all given the success of remote work.
For Kinzie Builders, the answers to many of the questions weren't speculative as we were applying them in the very real exercise of designing our new office in Libertyville. Plans had been in place for a while that we would celebrate our firm's 10-year anniversary (in 2021) in our new space -- COVID-19 just made us look at those plans differently.
In hindsight, designing an office during a pandemic was fortuitous as it helped serve as a litmus test for some of the features we were already contemplating. We always knew it wasn't about upsizing our office space, but right-sizing it. What we wanted was a space that better fit our growing company and its current and future needs.
Here are a few examples of what we learned in determining the design and functionality of our new office:
What the office can do for you
As a general contractor, many of our employees spend most of their time out in the field on job sites or visiting clients -- they aren't desk-based staff. So we were already leaning toward a new space with less square footage prior to 2020. The pandemic simply confirmed that idea as we quickly realized how productive we could be working from home.
This prompted us to re-imagine the meaning of an office. Instead of thinking of the office as a place where people come to sit and work -- which could now take place almost anywhere -- we wanted our new space to offer something our staff couldn't get out of a home workspace, job site or client conference room.
Through this lens, we saw we needed about half the square footage of our existing office, even with the preference for more personal work space due to social distancing.
Return by collaboration
Like most companies, we were able to "see" each other and stay on top of projects while working remotely thanks to virtual communication tools like WebEx, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, etc. This confirmed we didn't need to be in the same office to get work done. But as soon as in-person meetings were a safe option, most of our team came back to the office as everyone's job benefits from in-person communication, whether it's for collaboration, clarity or fostering relationships. When our staff was in the office, they wanted to be together -- they could work alone off-site.
To address the "we-not-me" work approach everyone wanted out of our new office space, we prioritized supporting in-person work and collaboration by creating an open concept area in the center of the floor plate where we installed larger workstations to maintain comfortable social distancing as well as give employees more room to spread out -- space that might not be available on a job site or in a home office.
A hub office without the hubbub
The desire to provide a collaborative hub was a major influence in our office design. Yet, the tools we've embraced in our remote work -- like virtual meetings -- are here to stay and moving into the office. Taking video conference noise levels into consideration, 30% of our private offices are now unassigned and our conference rooms are set up for hoteling. By having more "open" rooms, everyone can use these spaces on an as-needed basis, whether for in-person or virtual meetings or focused work.
It is often said that the pandemic exacerbated trends that were already in place before COVID-19 spread throughout the world. Our new office is, in many ways, an example of that -- a right-sized place with flexible space that serves as a tool to help our company grow in the next decade and beyond.
• Steve Spinell is founder and principal at Kinzie Builders in Libertyville.