How Modular Architecture Will Help Solve Office Needs Post-COVID

A reimagined, safe worker-centric office during this pandemic will take a collaborative, flexible approach between brokers, landlords, and companies. 

Unquestionably, many workers are reluctant to go back to the office. Therefore, it seems crucial that flexible workplace design should become a part of every company’s real estate strategy.

This includes a sense of urgency for the real estate industry to set aside old assumptions and immediately find new strategies to meet tenant demand for flexibility. As the current needs of modern workers are dramatically shifting due to the pandemic, it’s incumbent upon landlords to become more customer-centric, and for facilities managers to increasingly become more employee-centric. 

And, with economic uncertainty at all-time highs, the experts say the real estate industry must find ways to provide shorter-term leases, as tenants will likely lean into modular, versatile designs that are adaptable to satisfy their ever-changing behavior.

“I think the call to action at this moment is for adaptability and flexibility,” said Brian Chen, the CEO, and Co-founder of ROOM.There needs to be an easy way for configurability, there really needs to be purpose-built space when it comes to the environments that are offered in the offices, not just a one-size-fits-all type of arrangement.” 

Chen’s comments came during a recent webinar, Solving the Post-COVID Office through Modular Architecture. Joining him onscreen was Thais Galli, Managing Director, Head of Studio at Tishman Speyer, and Jonathan Wasserstrum, CEO & Co-Founder of SquareFoot. Travis Barrington, Co-Founder & CEO of Propmodo, moderated the hour-long discussion focusing on the role modularity and adaptive architecture will play in the weeks and months ahead. 

Modular solutions help unlock flexible real estate options

The biggest obstacle to unlocking flexibility is the high capital expense for an office build-out, as the upfront cost of fixed construction only makes sense when amortized over long lease terms, the experts said. Furthermore, floor plans using fixed construction are costly and highly disruptive to reconfigure. 

In order to make sublease and shorter lease term opportunities viable, landlords and tenants alike need to plan for configurability and design for optionality at the outset. Using furniture and modular architectural solutions to carve up space – rather than using built-in walls and conference rooms –  also offers increased flexibility.

For workers to feel safe, their offices must be employee-first, purpose-built spaces

Chen said the friction of workers returning to offices is high, especially amid a deadly global pandemic. Galli agrees. She said besides constantly wearing face masks, workers will be required in advance to learn new protocols – including how to get on an elevator, one of the many new, and numerous, safety precautions for getting into the office.

Galli said her company is taking steps including hourly cleaning in the workspace, installing proper ventilation, adding sensors to provide alerts if there are too many people in certain common areas, and putting refrigerators on opposite ends of the pantry to promote social distancing. 

“The worst thing would be for people to come back to the office and feel like they aren’t allowed to do anything, not allowed to touch anything and have to be careful with whatever they do, because then they’d rather stay at home if the environment is going to be that unwelcoming,” Galli said.

Galli adds that a company’s real estate strategy needs to be people-first. Start with your employees, their needs and desires, and work backward from there. Work with a partner who can think holistically and help you navigate your real estate needs as your company evolves. 

She also posed several questions: Is your goal to provide an exciting environment where everyone can come together in one place? Or, is it more important to provide easily accessible satellite locations? And, how will your real estate strategies change as the global pandemic advances? 

Brokers, flexible office providers, and companies such as ROOM can be invaluable resources as businesses think through any next real estate steps, Galli said.

Chen added that technology is vital in a flexible office space. He mentions that ROOM products will soon have occupancy sensors so that users can view a simple dashboard to understand how their “portfolio of spaces” is being used so that they can adapt accordingly.

“Our thought is because of the variability of which people will be coming into the office, the facilities managers, and the people managing the real estate need more visibility into how space is being used,” Chen said. “For us, I think the future is truly an adaptive office versus a fixed office.” 

“Part of that adaptability is one: understanding how your space is used,” Chen adds. “And, two: the actual ability to move spaces and change your space type.”

Consider applying “third, a third, a third” method for workers

Wasserstrum was asked that with more people getting comfortable working from home, are generic workspaces suitable? Wasserstrum thinks customizing office space instead should be strongly considered at this juncture.

He said one meaningful approach is to think of your workforce in thirds. A third of workers may want to go into the office five days a week; another third may want to be in the office two to three days a week, and the last third may want to show up only for meetings and presentations.

Each of these entities will require separate workspaces, Wasserstrum said.  

“More interestingly, that ‘a third, a third, a third’ (theory) probably holds over time,” Wasserstrum said. “Fast forward 18 months, for better or worse, you’ve probably cycled through most of the company, and directionally, you’ll actually need more (office) flexibility.”

Chen thinks that modular architecture will be on the upswing as the world navigates through these challenging times. 

“The nascent world that we are trying to pioneer with modular buildout will really enable all of these stakeholders to help fill the gap that is clearly coming between the supply of flexible space – and the demand for it,” Chen said. “I definitely believe that modularity is a big part of the future of the workplace.  

“We’re excited to work with landlords, brokers, and anybody who works in commercial real estate to help make that a reality.”