Covid-19 has already redefined the office landscape for years to come

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After months of having their employees cooped up at home, it’s perhaps unsurprising that companies across Houston are itching to get back into their offices. But the stakes of reopening offices too early couldn’t be much higher.

Just last month, a company working in the office tower at 1001 Fannin St. downtown confirmed to the building’s property managers that at least three of its employees had been diagnosed with Covid-19, the deadly disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The recent resurgence of active Covid-19 cases in Houston — more than 26,000 as of July 7, the same day Texas reported a record-shattering 10,028 new cases in a single day — has prompted building managers and office tenants alike to rethink how they do business to ensure they are putting employee safety at the top of their list of priorities. For many, that has required them to develop a new understanding of what an office is and what it should be in the wake of Covid-19.

Real estate experts from across Houston say that developing solutions to protect the health of office workers has required a new level of coronavirus-driven creativity.

“There’s really not one solution that is going to work for every space or work environment. The goal is to do what is best for people as a whole,” said James Wise, design manager at Houston-based Powers Brown Architecture. “We all want to get back to normal, but we want to do it in a way that ensures safety.

‘Fewer stickers, more architecture’
Walk into any public space in Houston lately, and you’re likely to see a number of recent additions that have become almost standard: stickers on the floor delineating 6-foot social distance metrics, signs encouraging visitors to wear masks and the nearly ubiquitous hand sanitizer stations many proprietors have had installed since the outbreak of Covid-19.

But, those recent additions to the office environment are, well, ugly.

Wise said the challenge of coming up with safety measures that are at once effective and attractive created an opportunity to reimagine office design in a way that incorporates hygiene and social distancing into the overall look and feel of the space.

For some clients, Wise said that might mean installing L-shaped lighting fixtures at a 45-degree angle to create arrows indicating which direction employees travel down one-way hallways. For others, it might mean installing more brass fixtures to take advantage of the antimicrobial benefits the alloy derives from its copper roots.

Wise said Powers Brown has also considered using different colors of rubber flooring to indicate appropriate social distances in office gyms.

“The idea is to use fewer stickers, more architecture wherever possible,” Wise said.

While that approach might work for new office buildouts, Wise said installing new hardware is often too expensive for existing office tenants to consider.

“In an ideal world, we’d take all the precautions that are available to us. But we’re not living in an ideal world,” Wise said. “For many clients, they’re not really wanting to spend a great deal of money to retrofit their office because no one knows what the future is going to look like or how long this is going to last.”

Powers Brown Architecture recently confronted the differences between existing office space and a new build during a recent case study it performed on behalf of the firm’s client, ARM Energy, a Houston-based midstream energy firm.

When Covid-19 hit, the buildout of ARM Energy’s offices on the fifth floor of 20329 State Highway 249 were already complete. Wise said that limited the options available to the firm to incorporate safety protocols into the design of the floor. Most of the changes ARM Energy made on that floor involved social-distancing markers on the floor, one-way hallways and new restrictions on how common areas were to be used.

But because renovations to the fourth floor of the building, which the company also occupies, were still ongoing, Powers Brown was able to make some more dramatic changes to the design.

Wise said ARM Energy approved a plan to add an additional vestibule to the office’s entrance that allows packages to be delivered while limiting contact between delivery services and the company’s employees. ARM Energy also approved of Powers Brown’s recommendation to install ultraviolet lighting in the vestibule to sanitize packages prior to employees picking them up.

“That was part of an effort to ‘zone’ different areas of the offices for public visitors and for employees, so that if there is a contamination, it limits the spread of Covid-19,” Wise said.

Going high tech

Powers Brown is not alone in its use of new technologies to improve hygiene and sanitation in office designs.

Andrew Cooke, vice president of property management at Hines, recently told the Houston Business Journal that technology plays a key role in the Houston-based real estate company’s plan to reopen its offices to Hines employees.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, Hines launched a mobile phone application that allows employees to provide daily updates to the company about how they are feeling before they go into the office every day. If employees report they are exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19, the app refers them to testing facilities.

Once they arrive, all of Hines U.S. employees are required to have their temperature read to ensure they are not showing signs of a fever.

Cooke said the company is also considering adding more touch-free systems to elevators in buildings the company owns.

He said the company is seeking to “create a perimeter” around each of its offices to ensure employees are safe from the time they walk up to the door to the time they sit down at their desk.

“Creating that perimeter is our first line of defense,” he said.

Cooke is also sifting through the countless pitches he receives from vendors each day, who are trying to sell new technology systems aimed at protecting employees.

“We’re doing our due diligence. Many of these systems aren’t going to deliver what they’re promising,” Cooke said. “But I do think all of this is going to create a real opportunity for innovation and invention. As a real estate company, we want to ensure we’re at the leading edge of what’s out there.”

Wise said Powers Brown is also looking into new sanitation technologies. But many of those are still in the early stages of development. One example Wise said the company was evaluating are automatic ultraviolet lights that are designed to be installed over door handles to sanitize them after each use. He added that the company is also looking into standalone kiosks that allow employees to have their temperature read without having another employee potentially exposed to Covid-19 while taking a reading.

“If you think about it, it’s not really safe to have another employee get within 6 feet of another employee to read their temperature or having someone handle a thermometer if they have Covid-19,” Wise said.

Cutting-edge technologies are not without their drawbacks, however. Not only are many of them expensive to install, many have yet to be proved to work in practice.

Both Cooke and Wise said they are limiting their focus to technologies that have been approved by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

Jeff Jeffrey
Houston Business Journal