Months after this global pandemic, many questions remain unanswered as to whether and when companies of all sizes will return to their offices and what it will take to move. The future is so unclear that even people working in the real estate industry don’t have all the answers – even though they’re starting to make educated guesses about what’s going to happen next.
A wealth of new data released tomorrow by the commercial real estate services giant CBRE underlines the somewhat schizophrenic situation that employees will face. Based on CBRE’s studies from 200 companies around the world who say they will return to the office, 59% say they will offer facewear to their employees, 28% plan to require facewear at all times, 21
The decision for the right patchwork of social distance measures is only part of the picture. Until a vaccine emerges that can eradicate COVID-19, organizing office space will be a challenge for businesses to strike a balance between employee safety and an appearance of normalcy. In fact, the only certainty for many management teams is that they need to make some changes. Of the many questions that CBRE asked in its survey, the most consistent responses focused on how many companies plan to use land use policies that reflect social distance (80%) and how many plan to reconfigure their furniture layouts (60%) .
Many break rooms and even cafeterias will probably be left. Others will try to ensure that employees are at least one meter apart. But you can also expect many other changes that venture investors suggest, that focus on real estate and construction technology, and are currently focusing on which technologies will be most in demand in the coming months and years.
The most focused outfits include Fifth Wall Ventures and Brick and Mortar Ventures, two companies that have emerged in recent years and are closely monitoring what happens for both professional and personal reasons.
For example, Darren Bechtel, who announced Brick and Mortar’s $ 97.5 million debut venture fund nine months ago, is working on an Airstream trailer in the driveway of a rental property where he and his wife and their young children live because they both live. You have to make calls all day.
While indoor and outdoor races are far from ideal, Bechtel is unwilling to reopen Brick and Mortar’s offices in the Bay Area soon, even if California is gradually reopening the state. “We’re not in a hurry. I’m wrong on the side of being overly conservative.” (Virtual happy hours also help, he says.)
Brendan Wallace, co-founder of Fifth Wall in LA, is also reluctant to push employees back into the office too early, and suggests that it is a decision he and co-founder Brad Greiwe are struggling with, even though they were “optimistically surprised at how productive our team is in a work remote environment. “
Part of the reluctance of both companies seems to be due to the fact that, like so many others, they know that their own offices may need to be redesigned. Although office design companies are not venture bets, Wallace notes that the need to now take employee movements into account should mean brisk business for these outfits.
Technologies that are scalable and that are suddenly more convincing for builders, managers and developers in today’s environment are more interesting for both investors. Both Wallace and Bechtel mention advanced air purifiers and ventilation devices that are used to process and circulate air in the context of heating, ventilation and air conditioning as a growing area of interest.
Wallace also expects commercial spaces that already use all types of intelligent technologies to install them much more aggressively, from sensors that can determine how many people are in a room or be guided through a turnstile to facial recognition technologies, with which physical contact points can be maintained to a minimum. He even imagines that more companies will use robots, patrol buildings and also clean them.
Companies now have to “take responsibility for tenants they didn’t have before,” says Wallace. And how they “want to retrofit [their spaces] we want to be more ambitious. “
For his part, Bechtel believes that either individual private offices or much larger conference rooms may be in demand in the industry to meet new concerns about safety or personal health.
He also believes that now could be the moment for material companies that manufacture antimicrobial textiles, for example. “People have developed [related] Greener materials for some time now, but there has been no demand for them, ”he says.
As Brick and Mortar Ventures focuses primarily on construction technologies, it also looks more closely at how construction companies can improve construction site safety and productivity by reshaping spaces that need renovation. This can mean anything from contact tracking to reality capture software (which creates 3D models from photos or laser scans). This could also mean an increase in demand for off-site prefabricated structures.
“If you are limited by the number of people who can work on site and need to check for people who don’t work on top of each other, the question arises: how can you do the work in a controlled environment? a next generation HVAC system [to purify the air] and markings on the floor? “Bechtel says:” People are now saying, “How much can we prepare outside of the site?”
Undoubtedly, much of this technology and its adoption depends on how long it takes for a vaccine that can eradicate COVID-19 to take effect. If a vaccine arrives sooner than expected, already financially stricken companies may consider major changes to their physical space to be less important. It is human nature to quickly forget.
“We’re only in for 75 days,” notes Wallace. “There is still a lot of information that needs to be brought to light,” he adds, noting that at a very basic level, no one knows yet whether people will return to their offices in bulk or continue to work remotely. “I don’t know what’s going to happen on the office side, I’m just being honest,” he says.
When economies reopen, businesses, universities, and other institutions must have a plan of attack to prevent the virus from spreading, and some are likely to lead to permanent changes.
The investors hope so. At the moment Wallace says: “Buildings are stupid. For the most part, they only exist to keep heat and air conditioning. “Wallaces hopes that if something good comes out of this situation, the buildings will become smarter and safer – and can adapt to health risks like this.