Office of the Future

The pandemic has changed everything about how we live and work, but what changes in the workplace are here to stay? Local professionals share their thoughts on what we can expect.

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Illustrations by John Holcroft

Prior to the pandemic only 17% of employees in the United States worked remotely five or more days a week. That number jumped to 44% in April of this year according to a recent report by Statista. Remote work quickly became necessary to stop the spread of disease, but will it continue after a vaccine? The present thought is yes, at least in some form.

In June, a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 55% of participating employers reported they anticipate most of their employees will work remotely at least two days per week after the COVID-19 threat is over.

This isn’t surprising to Amy Bakay, CEO of HR NOLA, who said many employers are recognizing the benefits of remote work — which can include a more engaged workforce and lower overhead — and even asking themselves, “Why didn’t we do this before?”

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“This pandemic has proven to many organizations that working remotely can be cost efficient, productive, and if implemented correctly, can improve work-life balance,” she said. “If all workers can be remote, imagine the global talent pool you now have access to. Remote work flexibility can be mutually beneficial to the employer and employee if there is proper communication, the right equipment, clearly defined objectives and a lot of flexibility.”

So how will this workforce shift affect the office of the future?

 

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Part 1

Space

LEASES When it comes to the state of office leases in New Orleans, it might be too soon to tell. Snappy Jacobs, owner of CCIM Real Estate Management, which leases office spaces, said he hasn’t had any office clients fail to renew a lease or end one early yet.

“I think the pandemic has put things on hold, if anything,” he said.

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Jacobs does, however, think office spaces will get smaller. He said clients have expressed interest in spaces with fewer common areas, including fewer parking garages and elevators. The goal, he said, is “a smaller space that can be more flexible.”

While some businesses are thinking small (especially those that plan on keeping a good portion of their workforce remote all or most of the time), others are looking for a larger space, one that allows for adequate social distancing. Blaine Gahagan, founder of property management firm HGI Facility Management in Elmwood, said he had one national company not renew their lease only for another to snatch up the space so they could expand their offices. “It became a net effect,” he said. “We didn’t lose any leased space.”

Gahagan said he predicts office space will fluctuate.

“It’s going to swing to remote and less density,” he said. “And then it’s going to swing to more traditional or a combination of traditional and remote.”

 

COWORKING SPACES The demand for flexibility and affordability in an uncertain economy is leading some companies to coworking spaces

“I don’t think the skyscraper is dead, but for smaller businesses this is a great option,” said Genevieve Douglass of Urban HUB, a coworking space in the Lower Garden District. Urban HUB offers an array of options and price points, from super flexible — the option to occupy a desk on a first-come-first-served basis for $30 a day — to the more stable option of renting a dedicated desk that includes mail service, locked storage and signage for $400 a month.

“This is a place where there’s a community, and it also offers a chance to get out of the house where people can have dogs and children and bad internet,” said Pamela Meyer of The Shop, a coworking space located inside the Contemporary Arts Center in Downtown New Orleans. “We offer a solution that someone could use daily like they’re used to, or just off and on as needed.” In addition to day passes and dedicated desks, The Shop can also provide a furnished office space for a team of up to eight people, as well as meeting and event space.

Of course, with coworking spaces comes… well, working around others. Here, both The Shop and Urban Hub have spaced out seating and added sanitation stations. Urban HUB, for example, is currently limiting occupancy to 50%, has placed hand sanitizing stations throughout the space and boasts multiple points of entry as well as outdoor space.

At The Shop, users are required to sign in in an effort to keep track of occupants and enable contact tracing if needed.

“Now that we’re in phase two, we will allow guests, but we’re very strict with it,” said Meyer in early September. “They have to be pre-registered and we use a wifi check-in.” She added that The Shop is sanitizing surfaces once every two hours and uses nano-septic wraps — a self-cleaning rubber material that uses an oxidation process to break down germs — on touchpoints like door handles.

 

LAYOUT CHANGES Is the idea of an open-air office doomed to become a relic? Not necessarily, said Alexis Miranne, business developer at office design firm AOS.
“So many people want to say, ‘Well, we’re going to get rid of open desking.’ And that’s not necessarily a fix for everybody long term, right? The question is really, about how can we have the agility to be flexible?”

While flexibility can look different depending on needs, there are small changes offices can make, like switching to disposable dishware to lessen the spread of community germs. The plexiglass dividers we’ve become accustomed to seeing are most likely here to stay. Some office managers are starting to think about longer-term solutions like glass dividers.

“One thing we’ve seen manufacturers develop really quickly are pop-up solutions within an office space,” said Miranne. For example, phone booths that offer privacy in a world where telecommunications have become increasingly important. Offices that can’t afford phone booths could consider re-allocating old spaces into areas exclusively for teleconferencing. That’s right — goodbye, conference room. Hello, Zoom room.
When AOS started work on office layouts during COVID-19, the company’s Director of Marketing, Caroline Hayes, said effective communication quickly became a cornerstone of every plan.

“It’s not just the furniture or the floorplan, you know, it’s about looking at how people interact in a space,” she said. With AOS’s clients in higher education, however, Hayes said it doesn’t matter how much you spend on safety amenities if students and staff don’t use them effectively. For this reason, she said offices will start including signage around how many people are allowed in a room, as well as arrows to direct foot traffic and designated entry and exit points to avoid crowding in common areas.
So, what about the open-air office? Miranne thinks it’s here to stay — just with the addition of dividers and desks positioned at least 6 feet apart.

 

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Part 2

HR and Legal

HIRING With much of the workforce currently remote, hiring during a global pandemic has presented a challenge. Amy Bakay, CEO of New Orleans-based human resources firm HR NOLA, said companies have been getting creative when it comes to attracting and hiring skilled employees.

HR NOLA recently hired a team member that nobody on the staff met in-person.
“We had several discussions, conducted panel video interviews, utilized the Predictive Index Behavioral and Cognitive Assessment, checked references and made an offer [to a recent employee],” said Bakay. “We will onboard electronically, provide orientation through video calls and send the welcome gift to their home. The only thing we have not done yet is elbow bump to make a human connection.”

Corporate Playbook President and CEO Deborah Elam, who specializes in business consulting for executives, believes remote hiring is here to stay and added that it provides an opportunity for diversifying the workplace.

“Workers who have physical limitations will be able to more fully participate in the workforce on an equal footing,” Elam said. “They won’t have to come into the office just to be ‘equal.’”

 

KEEPING EMPLOYEES HEALTHY AND ENGAGED With so much screen time and less in-person connection, employee engagement can suffer. Here, again, companies have been forced to get creative, making efforts to host virtual happy hours, cooking classes and even mindfulness meditations.

The line between work and personal responsibilities has also been blurred as parents have taken on remote schooling responsibilities or employees may find themselves in the position of having to care for a loved one. Mental health, said Stefanie Allweiss, co-founder of Gotcha Covered HR, has to be a priority.

“Offering flexibility during the workday, permitting generous use of PTO, and making adjustments in scheduling work hours are some ways to help employees take needed breaks for self-care,” said Allweiss. “Employers need to think outside-the-box when it comes to expectations of ‘normal’ work hours if it will help employees deal with childcare and self-care needs.”

Since the pandemic, many employers are prioritizing health and wellness over all other business initiatives. Over the past six months, there have been myriad new COVID-19-related federal, state and parish guidelines, mandates and laws directed at customer and employee protections and protocols, including those around attendance and timekeeping, remote work, vacation and sick leave, as well as temperature testing, company safety, security and hygiene, and travel policies.

Helene Wall, associate director of Louisiana-based accounting firm Postlethwaite & Netterville, said best practices suggests that businesses maintain their own procedures separately from employment-based policies through the use of a comprehensive employee handbook. Training on policy administration is the best method to ensure consistent application of policies across the workforce.

“Keeping them separate provides options to make effective workflow changes quickly and limits the risk of having outdated or incorrect information in writing that could adversely impact the organization,” she said.

WORKER’S COMP The pandemic has presented multiple challenges when it comes to worker’s compensation. Essential workers, such as health care workers, mass transit operators and grocery store employees, are at a high risk of exposure to the virus while at work, but are not guaranteed that a COVID-19 infection would be covered under workers’ compensation in most states. In Louisiana, employers are not liable if an employee or patron claims to have contracted COVID-19 at a workplace unless the company exhibits gross negligence.

And how does worker’s compensation work if employees are working from home?
“Generally speaking, an injury or illness suffered by an employee which occurs during the course of employment is compensable, regardless of where it happens, said Wall. “With the new normal of working from home, employers should strongly consider updating their employment policies to account for scenarios outside of a traditional office environment. This may include new or updated policies that address such issues as workers’ compensation incident reporting, guidelines for a designated workspace, safety and security in the remote workplace, and care and use of company-provided equipment, among others.”

 

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Part 3

Safe and Secure

A NEW LEVEL OF CLEAN Remember when periodic vacuuming, dusting and emptying trash bins was enough? Those days are gone, likely for good, said Brock Dumestre, owner of a local disinfecting company called Bactronix.

“Cleaning commercial spaces now is all about completely removing the biological fingerprint of a person,” said Dumestre. “And this isn’t just a COVID-19 problem. Even after this disease has passed, there will likely be others. This issue is going to be around for a while. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if OSHA gets involved and expects companies to have a biological mitigation plan. That seems logical.”

The biggest buzz word in cleaning right now is electrostatic spraying. Around since the 1940s, electrostatic spraying is a process in which a liquid is positively charged as it is dispensed through a nozzle. The charged droplets repel each other; since most surfaces are naturally negatively charged, they bind to them. This type of cleaning allows all areas of a surface (think nooks and crannies) to be reached quickly with less product.

Barrett Wiley, owner of Cleaning Concierge, a commercial cleaning company operating in New Orleans since 2009, said he’d typically see requests for electrostatic cleaning outside of day care centers, schools and medical facilities only very infrequently, for instance during cold and flu season. Since the pandemic, he said demand has increased by “at least 100%.”

The CDC has a list of almost 500 approved common cleaners for COVID-19, along with recommendations on how long a surface must remain wet to be effective — times range from 30 seconds to 25 minutes. The database is searchable by a product’s EPA registration number.

Whatever company or products they choose, Dumestre cautions employers to do their homework.

“[Commercial cleaning] has become a very crowded space right now as everybody rushes to check off boxes,” he said. “I encourage people to ask a lot of questions. What are the differences in application methods? What type of disinfection are you getting and how long does it last? And, most importantly, has it been tested? Do you get any kind of report or certification? Documentation is very important right now to provide a company with protection if needed.”

 

CYBER SECURITY Eight-hundred percent — that’s how much cyberattacks in the United States reported to the FBI had increased barely two months into the pandemic, making it unsurprising that in May, Computer Weekly stated “Coronavirus may be the largest-ever global security threat.”

“We’ve seen unified commercial platforms like Zoom and Teams get hacked recently,” said Stephanie Kavanaugh, sales and marketing director for Universal Data, a cyber security-focused IT firm operating in New Orleans since 1982. She said the majority of attacks she’s been seeing locally are phishing attempts, where a person is tricked into opening an email or text message and that breach is used to gain secure information.
“It’s really important to strengthen what we call the ‘human firewall,’ meaning educating employees on how to recognize a potential threat.”

Kenny Grayson, owner of Grayson Data, a New Orleans IT company launched in 2016 that specializes in working with small businesses. He said small businesses are typically used to operating remotely, but many medium-sized businesses were not, which meant there was a bit of a scramble to move from one corporate network to a remote workplace where each employee could be at home on their own network with their own equipment. Grayson said he has been moving businesses to a Cloud-based setup — like he uses with his own company — to help with security issues.

Ted Nass, co-owner and VP at Avexon, a New Orleans software development and technology company formed in 2018, said his company has been busy moving companies from a traditional remote connection, or Virtual Private Network (VPN), to a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, (VDI).

“With a VPN you have to pay for each license so a company could have 5,000 employees but had only purchased 1,000 pieces of equipment [laptops] with licenses because they didn’t think more than that many people would be working remote at one time,” Nass said. “Then the pandemic comes and now they’re stuck without the access they need. A VDI system, on the other hand, works almost all through a web page. It’s more secure as you can set a user to any level of access and you can use any device you want to work. You can login at the office and then go home and login at home on your laptop and be right where you left off.”

While once a very expensive option, Nass said he’s seeing the pricing coming down on VDI.

“The Cares Act covers this type of thing and so do some grants,” said Nass, noting that an investment in a better remote setup also makes sense with the multiple weather interruptions we can have in this region.

“The South is a little behind in terms of moving to VDI, and Louisiana and Mississippi are at the tail end,” he said. “But in the last two years things have started to ramp up.”

 

Local Companies Innovating for COVID-19

DigiTHERM — has developed an infrared body temperature scanning kiosk that is non-invasive, easy to use and offers a socially distant way to take temperatures. Any temperature over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit triggers an audible and visual alert, enabling employers, restaurants and venues to effectively and immediately detect potential hazards.

IDSCan.net — created a device that pulls information from the barcode on any driver’s license in order to easily record the names and phone numbers of all customers. Since 2003, IDScan.net has developed identity verification and information gathering technologies for more than 6,000 clients.

Stop & Block — Makers of sunscreen weatherproof, battery-powered dispensers, the 3-year-old company has pivoted to create touch-free dispensers of hand sanitizer at local office buildings, shopping malls and other locations where people gather.

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