Public and Private Spaces in the Wake of the Pandemic

by on June 7, 2021 · 0 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

Mike Conger and his office.

By Joni Halpern

Living through months of pandemic confinement has taught us something about what we need to live successfully in our public and private spaces.  We have learned that space can make us vulnerable, or it can make us safe.  Now we must envision how this lesson will play out in our lives at home and work.

To help us, we tapped the experience and imagination of two individuals whose professional lives have revolved around the question of how human beings use space to work, profit and live.

The Architect

Neil Larson, a retired architect whose long career helped shape the San Diego business environment, is a quiet man with an almost therapeutic demeanor.  He speaks softly, punctuating his wry humor with a warm smile and twinkling eyes.  He once described his manner toward clients as “psychiatric,” because of the skilled interviewing techniques he used to elicit his  clients’ needs, desires and ideas.  The answers he got, along with regulatory requirements, the attributes of materials, design limitations and client budgets, became the basis for architectural designs often expressed in elegant simplicity amid a thirst for natural light.

Larson thinks the pandemic has added a new burden to the considerations companies and individuals must face as they contemplate the future.    After almost two years of makeshift accommodations to reduce the spread of disease, there is now a new and overriding concern:  how to make structures safe in the event of an outbreak of contagious disease.  Larson said that concern has led to entirely different ideas of who will use a work space, how it will be used, and how the changes that result will spill over into the residential spaces we call home.

The Leasing Agent

Mike Conger is the principal broker at Commercial Asset Advisors, a San Diego-based commercial brokerage firm that serves clients across the county.  He, too, sees the pandemic as provoking a sea change in the way building owners and office tenants use their work space.  Despite the widespread acceptance of continuing remote work, Conger has a feeling that as time goes on, we might discover important limitations to a scattered work force.  He also believes, as Larson does, that the spillover of work into the home environment may conflict with current community planning trends supporting denser, smaller residential developments.

Neil Larson, retired San Diego architect, former partner at Larson Carpenter Architectural Firm.

Changes in the Workplace

Presently, many employers and employees trend seem to favor remote work some or all the time.  In fact, recent surveys show that working remotely is one of the most desirable attributes of a job.  In a survey reported in Forbes Magazine last November, almost half of the employee respondents said they would take a pay cut to be able to work at home.

At the outset of the shutdown in March 2020, business owners, forced to allow remote work, worried that employees would be less productive.  Companies feared workers might take time off for personal or family matters when they should be doing the work they were paid to do.

That fear turned out to be unfounded, although it still remains to be seen whether remote productivity will falter over time.  However, initial surveys showed remote workers increased productivity, a result attributed to fewer distractions, more freedom to conform work hours to individual needs, and the reduction or absence of commuting time.  In addition to productivity, there were other benefits to employers; many companies aid remote work kept them from laying off employees and reduced office rent and other expenses.

However, architect Larson warns against hasty conclusions about the benefits of remote work over in-person work.  He thinks there might be negative effects from changed office spaces and shifting work relationships that could become apparent in the future.

“When businesses reopen, they will probably return their workers to a space that is shared, so they can reduce the number of persons in any work space,” said Larson.  “That means there might be shared desk spaces.  There won’t be one particular desk that is ‘mine.’   There won’t be any territorializing of space.  There is a different mentality when an employee is occupying a space that ‘belongs’ to the business but not to the individual.  It might lead to many unhappy people.”

Traditionally, Larson said, office space often has been allocated to express hierarchy or achievement in business.  “But in the post-pandemic environment, that corner office with a window that once was reserved as a prize for high performance may no longer be available.  We may see very open office spaces with no privacy. These changes might undermine the sense of belonging and accomplishment in a company.  Companies will have to find other ways to build camaraderie and reward excellence.”

Companies that can afford brand new buildings and designs will have more latitude to experiment with the allocation of space to accommodate a workforce that is partly in the office and partly at home.  A recent example reported in major news media was Google’s announcement of plans to transform its sprawling “Googleplex” campus in Mountain View, CA, to reflect changes in employee preferences for how and where they will work.

Prior to the pandemic, Google employees were encouraged to spend so much time on campus that it made sense to provide such free amenities as lunch, fitness facilities, and shuttles to and from the workplace.  The newly planned Google campus envisions flexible work and meeting spaces, with moveable walls and furniture, meeting spaces configured so that on-campus workers can be integrated with remote workers who appear on screens, and open-air spaces in which employees can spread out but still feel they are in an intimate setting around a “campfire.”  There is the likelihood that workers will spend less time at the office than they have in the past.

Conger and Larson believe that businesses occupying more conventional office buildings probably will meet the challenges of the new workplace by setting work stations farther apart and providing for adjustable work spaces and office furnishings that can be used by employees alternating between home and office.  Large boardrooms with tables the size of loading platforms may be a thing of the past.  Building materials and office furnishings will be of a type that can be sanitized easily.

Can’t We Just Filter Out the Virus?

While it is possible in theory to make existing buildings safer from the spread of disease, Larson and Conger both say that the cost of high-grade air filtration will limit air quality improvements.

“We know how to make buildings fairly safe from contagion with improved ventilation,” Larson explained.  “We do it in hospital suites, even in older buildings.  But in high rise office buildings, many of which have inoperable windows, improved ventilation can be a thorny issue.”

A ventilation system in an office building works similarly to one in a house, he said.  It takes the air from one place, directs it through a space, then returns it to the source.  There is a combination of old and new air that is constantly being circulated and cleaned.

“But a high rise office building has special problems,” he said.  “Changing the ventilation system has an enormous cost.  You would have to add ducting in the interior spaces between the floors, a space already occupied by existing ducting.  You would have to have bigger roof fans that are speeded up.  You would need big filters to receive new air.  Where would you put all this additional ducting and machinery?  You can’t hang it outside the building.”

Building owners don’t make money by adding expensive ducting, Larson explained.  They make it from people renting their building space.  Owners can alter the work spaces and make the lease terms more attractive to get people back into office buildings, but the most cost-effective way of reducing contagion is probably exactly what companies have done: allow their employees to work remotely.

Conger agrees.  “It’s hard to get hospital-grade air quality in an office building,” he said.  “It puts too much stress on the mechanism itself.  The higher the grade of filter, the harder the unit has to work to push air through.”

Conger said some local owners have upgraded air conditioning technology in their buildings to capture more virus particles and kill bacteria, although not to a level that would be impervious to something as contagious as the coronavirus.  Other building owners have advertised smaller office buildings – around two to five stories – as being more “COVID-friendly,” because they do not require lengthy elevator rides, and some of the older buildings have operable windows.

Even though there are limitations because of cost and structure, however, Larson believes ventilation will have to improve to some degree.  “Reducing the number of employees may help with person-to-person spread,” he said, “but if the ventilation system is not upgraded, there will still be some risk.”

How Will the New Allocation of Office Space Affect Workers and Companies?

Both Larson and Conger believe we have entered an era in which many companies will choose a hybrid model in which some employees will work remotely, and some will work in the office, perhaps on a rotating basis.  Space, which once defined not only office function, but office hierarchy and performance status, now may be allocated with health as a paramount concern.

“The pandemic caused us to re-examine how we work in offices as individuals and groups.  What we learned is that a combination of both home and office spaces may be a logical compromise.  The standard ‘open office’ dividers of the last 50 years may need to be made more flexible.  The office panels must be movable, changeable in size and shape, and they have to allow air to flow from the base to the top of the panel.  We need to remove pathogens from the air as much as possible, maintain a frequent cleaning schedule, utilize cleanable materials, use a seating module of at least six feet from one another, and create outside access whenever possible.”

If a company cannot afford to expand office space to accommodate these changes, they may have to embrace remote work for some portion of their workforce.  Larson believes this departure from a unified work place may lead to the “loss of certain feelings of belonging and acknowledgment of effort.”  Conger thinks remote work may cause losses that will surface in the future.

“An employer wonders about employees working remotely,” Conger said.  “Are they really working?  What are they doing?  In my business, I noticed that when everyone got back into the office — with COVID precautions, of course — we got a lot more done.  It’s tough to build rapport with colleagues on a Zoom call.  I think people will realize that a distributed workforce where employees work wherever they want outside the office will result in a loss of ‘tribal knowledge.’”

Conger defines “tribal knowledge” as the camaraderie, shared projects, ease of contact with other workers, sharing of ideas, and socializing that happens in an office in which people work together and often socialize outside of work.

“Those are things that will be missed,” he said.  “A lot of people like leaving home and going to the office.  They like the sense of belonging they feel when they go to work.”

Conger said that during the pandemic, there was an increase in people renting “co-working” spaces, that is, office spaces that can be rented by the hour, day, or month.

“Some people can’t work in their homes,” said Conger.  “There might be too many distractions, or maybe there’s no privacy or not enough space.  We used to see independent contractors use co-working spaces, but during the pandemic, we’ve seen employees spending their own money to rent a space to work outside the home.  Corporations might find it efficient to rent co-working space for their employees, or perhaps they might give them a stipend to rent the space themselves.”

Larson said companies may experience some savings in overhead through remote working.  A reduced number of workers using a building may mean lower heating and cooling costs, less toilet and elevator use.  Conger points out, however, that those savings will not help building owners as much, because those costs are passed on to office tenants.  He said most of a building owner’s expenses are in fixed costs like debt service for large loans on the building, landscaping, security, insurance, and other expenses.

However, Conger said office tenants might experience other losses from remote working that are harder to measure.

“I have heard employees who work remotely say ‘I keep my computer on all day, but in the morning, I walk my dog, or I surf.’  That is a concern for corporations in terms of productivity.  But that loss is harder to measure than watching your bottom-line expenses go down because your rental space is reduced, your coffee and snack bills are less, and your overhead is less.  It’s not as easy to see the costs you might be incurring by having employees work remotely.”

Can We Really Work at Home for the Indefinite Future?

“Some people will be okay working at home,” said Larson.  “They will make enough money to pay for a home that has space for a home office.  But at the price of today’s dwellings, that’s going to get tight.”  Larson also acknowledges that current urban trends favor smaller dwelling units, even in places where rents may remain relatively high.

Conger said the trend in San Diego is to allow any development on a mass transit line to have “incredible density, with parking space requirements waived and incentives for micro-units,” in order to address the housing crisis.

“Urban areas in San Diego are going to be more and more dense,” Conger said.  “Trying to work from home in a single family dwelling is difficult.  I have a single family home, and couldn’t wait to get back to the office.  But trying to work at home in a micro-unit is almost impossible.”

“It’s not like a single person’s apartment in Japan,” said Larson, “where you roll up your bed in the morning and you live in about 500 square feet, with a tiny kitchen, dining and living area, and a bathroom.  There’s no place for a home office in a small unit.”

Larson said it would be extremely hard even for a single parent with one child to live and work in a dwelling with minimum square footage.

“Now you need a dedicated work space,” he said.  “You need space for storage.  You need space for some remote learning for a child or children.  Imagine if you have an apartment of 850 square feet for a father, mother, and a child.”   He shook his head.  “Do they have to talk to each other?  I hope they’re happy.”

Larson said the trend toward denser developments, smaller dwelling units, and remote work and learning will pressure Americans to re-think their habits.

“Americans are acquirers of things,” he said.  “We may have to ask ourselves ‘What do you need to be satisfied?’  We need to rethink the habit of acquisition, and we need to think about how we might share things the way Americans did at certain times in the past.  With an unlimited budget, a person can buy everything they and their kids need to use.  But we no longer share, so we have to have storage for everything.  There may need to be some adjustments.”

Conceding that it is hard to predict the future, Conger speculates that working in an office with colleagues will become more and more attractive as time goes on.

“America developed with the idea of a tract home, where Dad could throw a baseball around with Johnny in the backyard,” he said.  “That’s hard to attain now.  The city has allowed ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) that now override local zoning.  The State is talking about doing away with single-family-dwelling zoning.  If that happens, and you live in single-family-dwelling neighborhood, your neighbor could possibly build a fourplex.

“The office becomes more attractive as you try to work without distractions,” Conger added.  “And the culture of work, collaboration, friendships, and after-work socializing will add many reasons for going back to work at the office.”


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