Coronavirus changing the way people view working in traditional office spaces

HOUSTON – As Texas continues reopening for business, it’s becoming clear that the traditional workspace may not work in a world with the coronavirus.

Zoom meetings, Google Docs, DropBox and email already altered the office environment. And now with the need for social distancing, avoiding the office is no longer optional, in most cases, it’s necessary.

It’s challenging if your job is to keep Houston’s office buildings filled.

“The message to landlords is do what you can because you don’t know what it’s going to look like on the other side of this virus,” said Chris Lewis, managing principal at Lee and Associates, a Houston firm that sells, leases and manages commercial real estate.

And there’s a lot of it.

“Approximately 250 million square feet,” Lewis said.

That’s the equivalent of 131 NRG Stadiums.

And how companies occupy all that space going forward is a big question.

“I think there is going to be some companies that want to spread out, that go back to the big office environment like we had and not be as dense,” Lewis said. “There is going to be growth for some of these people, I think.”

And there is room to grow, in places like Greenway Plaza, the Galleria and Westchase with 26% availability.

But aside from the space itself, another challenge is how to get everyone back into the buildings safely.

Charlie Kuntz is the Innovation Officer at Hines, a Houston-based development company behind many of the high-rises that make up the Houston skyline.

“Within Hines, we have multiple task forces hard at work right now identifying and focusing on specific areas for returning to work,” Kuntz said.

Hines is working with the world-renowned Mayo Clinic and its Well Living Lab to develop innovative ideas for the commercial real estate industry, not only for the transition back to work, but beyond the pandemic as well.

“This is something we are going to be working on for months and years,” Kuntz said.

Their focus is on improving air quality, sanitizing the workspace and changing human behavior. Cleanliness and behavior are already in practice at Lee and Associates with the flow of traffic arrows taped to floors and signage for best practices taped throughout the office, including the cafeteria where only one employee is allowed per table.

But there are some high-tech approaches to employee safety as well. Chad Smith is the Vice President of Product Strategy at Houston-based iOffice, an online solution company fast-tracking technology like artificial intelligence and sensors and looking for applications in the workplace.

“Using sensors to track people so we can help people see that they might be in an overfilled room, warn them before that actually happens,” Smith said.

The bottom line, time and safety will be required before office work can return to normal.

“Until somebody feels safe to be in an office environment again, you are not going to see business back as usual,” Lewis said.

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