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
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
“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.”
“Employees can use their phone to understand everything
about their building."
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,”
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,”
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
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
We want to welcome people
back warmly and make sure
that they have an optimized
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
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 postpandemic.
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,”
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
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:
Liz Wolf 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.