Most businesses have been in an ‘on-again, off-again’ relationship with their office spaces since the start of the pandemic but with the U.S. reopening and Canada gradually following suit, there’s now serious decisions to be made on what the biggest companies occupying Waterloo office spaces will ask of their workforces, and what they will do with their properties to accommodate them.
Some have already formulated their return-to-work policies, determining that they can be just as efficient, if not more so, with less or no office space whatsoever. Sun Life Financial has already implemented rapid COVID testing and confirmed employees will not be returning to two of it’s Waterloo locations, instead choosing to focus on flexible working and investment into its two remaining offices to improve virtual meeting facilities and tech firm Boxbrite technologies, who doubled their workforce during the pandemic, have relinquished their previous office space completely.
Consolidation and enhancement for flexible working
For many of Waterloo’s growing businesses, office space is being consolidated and smaller footprints revived so that they not only cater for the safety of employees but become an extension of their homes, blurring the lines between living and working. Financial firm Manulife completed it’s new Waterloo office during 2020 - a 325,000 square feet facility which promotes the emotional and physical wellbeing of its 3000 employees through a clever mix of collaborative social areas with quiet zones and room for physical activity.
Manulife Office Waterloo
Open plan is a big feature of this development and those with existing open plan environments which have become very popular over recent years are unlikely to disappear overnight as these spaces offer much more effective circulation of natural air - ideal for combatting airborne virus transmission.
Developing employee-centric offices
Ventilation and climate control
We know that COVID can be transmitted through the air and good circulation of natural air through buildings is paramount. In the past, ugly HVAC systems were covered up, reducing ceiling height and airflow but now they’re being left exposed intentionally to give that industrial look and feel that many tech and creative companies’ want. Where buildings have older HVAC systems and limited headroom, owners will need to consider advanced air filtration systems for added reassurance.
Finishes and furnishings
Finishes and furnishings that are naturally anti-bacterial are making a comeback as well as new ‘self-clean’ products that are hitting the market from innovative startups who’ve been motivated to find a solution to public perception of unhygienic public places. Communal kitchens and appliances will be unappealing to tenants, unless designers can incorporate smart refrigerator drawers and other devices dedicated to specific tenant groups.
Smaller meeting rooms
There won’t be as many people using in-office meeting rooms with a hybrid workforce so these areas can be smaller with more focus on how in-office and work-at-home employees can better collaborate frequently and seamlessly utilizing available AV technologies.
One-way systems and signage
One-way systems are a way to control people flow through buildings, where space allows of course and we’re all familiar with arrows on the floor now. Businesses’ just need to think of creative ways to incorporate social distancing signage into their buildings and stay on-brand.
Technology will play a huge role in winning the hearts and minds of returning employees. Touch-free, motion and face-sensor technologies operated from personal devices will become commonplace, alleviating concerns around high touch points such as doors, elevators, switches and faucets.
Bringing outdoors in
Another initiative related to airflow are developments that incorporate outdoor spaces into their design. Terraces, shared rooftop space and patios with panoramic bi-fold doors that open out wide are all ways to increase ventilation, at least through the summer months whilst also providing for employee wellness.
Retail and culinary amenities
Use of retail space is a big focal point for building owners and landlords aiming to attract workers with a live-work mentality. Enticing health and fitness vendors to an office is a real draw for employees, as are facilities where they can store cycles and access showers so that they can ditch cars and cycle to work.
Food courts or health food stores will be more important to employees than ever as many have a better awareness of their own health and wellbeing after the pandemic and more importantly, including culinary amenities and retail experiences within the workplace means employees don’t have to venture out during the working day. Tech-giant Shopify, one of Waterloo’s biggest employers are well-known for their employee perks and their remarkable office in the old Seagram’s distillery is testament to this with it’s bike storage, shower facilities, quiet sanctuary areas and fully-stocked kitchens - it really does cater to everyone.
Unpredictable labor market
For those businesses still sitting on the fence, preferring to see what’s panning out with our neighbors in the south, the expectation for a return-to-work has been unpredictable to say the least. With talk of further variants of the virus hitting countries’ with high vaccination rates, many are reluctant to return to an office or manufacturing setting, others simply can’t due to lack of childcare and there’s speculation that older employees may change career paths permanently or opt for early retirement. We might not see the labor market settle down entirely until fall when schools reopen and parents, particularly working moms, can re-enter the workforce confidently; it appears we could remain in a transitory period until then and companies’ that place employee wellness at the center of their office will be best placed to migrate them back.
The office is very much alive (especially in Waterloo)
As business leaders assess their options for Waterloo office spaces, one thing is clear, the office is certainly not dead as media would have purported in early 2020. Even Google, another big employer in the region and a huge advocate for permanent work-from-home have softened their stance recently.
Young employees in tech and creative fields and entrepreneurial minds crave human interaction and they’ll be returning to potentially slightly smaller but upgraded offices where they feel safer and more valued. As some businesses’ let go of some of their unwanted space (Shopify for example), these sublease units will be optimized for post-COVID working and snapped-up by the startups that continue to be formed and move into the area for its many advantages. Waterloo has one of the best rapid transit systems in the province, an unending stream of brilliant minds in the computer science and engineering arenas and a quality of life which few cities can rival; even COVID can’t keep Waterloo down for long.