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The Structures

Wooden Blocks With 2020 2021 Number On Table

By Chad Clinehens

This month we focus on structures and buildings. As we kick off 2021, it is timely to focus on a specific area of this genre, our office buildings. For the majority of us who have spent their careers in an office building, 2020 was an extraordinary year. 2021 may be an even more extraordinary year as many firms will finally have to decide what the long-term office solution looks like.

Many firms have spent the majority of 2020 in a variety of work scenarios. Talking with AEC firm leaders, some had 0 percent of their workforce in the office, and others had 100 percent. Firms with multiple office locations had a great deal of variability across offices. Regardless of where you and your firm fell on the spectrum, you are probably facing some decisions in 2021 that will shape what the office of your future will look like long-term. Office space design has evolved since the 18th century, when dedicated office buildings emerged. From open floor plans to walled offices, functionality of offices has changed dramatically over the ages. The development of the elevator and of steel frame construction rapidly evolved office building design and fueled taller buildings that could house multiple companies. Open spaces with modular furniture grew in popularity in the 90s. My first office was in an open space with modular offices made out of plywood. The walls were about 7 feet high in a room with 15 foot ceilings. I thought it was pointless as the height of the walls cut off light from being transmitted while allowing the sounds from the room to be a distraction. The open floor plan of the last 20 years has become much more open with little of any dividers between people. This design was fueled by an interest in increased collaboration. Like any design approach, it had its supporters and critics. You can find studies on the internet that both prove and dis-prove the merits of about any office design approach. Regardless of what your office design is, the important thing to note is that these spaces are your home away from home. We spent a lot of time in these spaces, or at least we did prior to 2020.

So as we put 2020 in the rearview mirror, we have to recognize that we have some decisions in the trunk that we must carry into 2021 and be prepared to handle in the months ahead. Probably the biggest for many firms is, once the virus is no longer an issue, what are the expectations for being in the office that we will apply in a post-COVID world? Most companies are still living in a world of exceptions, where working in the office is optional or even allowed has many office buildings dark. What does a return to the office look like?

There are many theories on this – from new space designs that include a return to more walled offices and larger spaces between employees, to a permanent work from home policy for many staff to a “hoteling” system where groups of people cycle in and out of the office. Regardless of how your company chooses to dictate the future of work in your firm, we can all agree that office space and buildings are about to have the biggest shakeup of all time. The “quantum evolution” of flexibility that was forced on us in 2020 has many benefits. As an industry, AEC was behind most other industries in adopting a more flexible work structure. I’ve worked with many leaders who still believe the “butts in seats” is the only way to ensure a productive and efficient workforce. Many of those leaders were proven wrong in 2020 when the pivot to work from home for the majority of their staff affected the firm very little, with many firms actually reporting higher productivity and efficiency. Recent figures from Q3 & Q4 of 2020 show that 67 percent of AEC firms have changed their policies to allow any employee to work remote or telecommute at any time with a median of 70 percent (or average of 63 percent) of a firm’s workforce now working remotely. This survey also found that can firms report up to 90 percent of their workforce (medians) can effectively telecommute / work remotely. Link: https://www.zweiggroup.com/publications/covid-19-response/

Going forward, you are going to have to think very hard about your work environment and what works best for you as an individual and as a firm. Those two may not align. Leaders have a tough job ahead. Figuring out who must work in the office and who doesn’t is one part of it. The other is what the office environment needs to look like, if any different from before.  These decisions will affect office space design, property leases, IT investments, recruiting and retention tactics, marketing, business development, project management, and the list goes on. We live in an extraordinary time where we can document the evolution of the office building and space over the past three centuries with future generations seeing a big blip that happened in that crazy year 2020. What the blip looks like will be defined by you and your firm. The future of work in AEC is exciting to me because I hope that we can take this forced flexibility and hold onto it going forward while dreaming big about what the office space of the future can look like.

Chad Clinehens, P.E., is Zweig Group’s president and CEO. Contact him at cclinehens@zweiggroup.com.