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FairfaxBusinessPanel: Some COVID-inspired workplace shifts to be permanent

Panel: Some COVID-inspired workplace shifts to be permanent

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Workplace shifts that already were in progress got turbocharged under the pandemic, forcing employers to re-examine their workspaces and how they best can serve employees, panelists said June 8 at the 14th Regional Community Partnership Forum.

Stakeholders and employees now have a greater voice, are resisting returning to the office full-time and have begun seeking more incentive and purpose in their work, said Daniel Olberding, associate vice president at CannonDesign, during remarks at George Mason University’s Arlington campus.

As a result, companies have had to accelerate their timeline for cultural change and embrace the future of work, he said.

“People are brushing up their résumés,” Olberding said. “Expectations are really high. The emphasis is on equity.”

Those remarks squared with the views of Ian Gordon, vice president of community impact and engagement at United Way of the National Capital Area.

With its leases set to expire this year, United Way officials a couple of years ago began looking for spaces that would let them turn the traditional office arrangement – executive offices with windows on the periphery, cubicles for lower-level workers in the middle – on its head.

“At the core were equity and flexibility,” he said, adding that now only the organization’s chief executive officer and chief financial officer will have dedicated space.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, employers must continually evolve, said Olberding, who recommended they:

• Foster new mindsets and behaviors and empower employees. To give workers a stronger sense of personal space, employers might consider desk sharing and stipends for technology and other work tools, he said.

• Provide flexible, adaptable, customizable work spaces.

• Embrace technology to accommodate a hybrid workforce that isn’t going away. Olberding used the term “phygital” – a mash-up of physical and digital – which he defined as “using technology to bring people together, not segregate them further.”

• Master collaboration by encouraging a youthful spirit, increasing the number of “focus” rooms that offer acoustical privacy and providing social hubs that allow for face-to-face encounters.

• Bolster camaraderie by offering social areas for connections and movement. The goal is to create a sense of belonging and inclusion, Olberding said.

• Design for well-being, allowing employees to break away and process information. Such offices will have a “hospitality feel” and be “inspiring and equitable,” he said.

Olberding also recommended that businesses try out some of their new ideas with pilot studies.

Capital One now is pondering more of a hybrid work force where employees can blend in-person and remote work, said Jonathan Griffith, managing director of Capital One Center, the mixed-use development on the bank’s global headquarters in Tysons.

Citing the “incredible demand now for new talent,” Capital One leaders are trying to differentiate the company and ensure employees have a dynamic workplace, Griffith said.

As for an overall, permanent return to in-person work, don’t count on it, said United Way’s Gordon.

“That genie is out of the bottle now,” he said. “Going back to the office will never be 100-percent again . . . It really is about being people-centric. Ultimately, folks have choices of where they can work.”

The forum was a joint presentation by Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government, the Greater McLean Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Fairfax and United Way of the National Capital Area.

Following the pandemic, the return to the office has been “all over the map,” with 30 to 35 percent of workers doing so, said Tony Womack, executive vice president at Transwestern. While 60 percent of employees formerly worked from home or another remote location, that figure now stands at 40 percent, he said.

The latest trends: speculative (“spec”) space and curated office buildings with common amenity areas.

“Tenants are looking to improve the quality of space when relocating,” Womack said, including the provision of casual spaces where “personal collisions” can occur.

Office buildings located in mixed-use areas are experiencing lower vacancy rates and proximity to mass transit also is proving a boon, he said.
Buildings located within a quarter-mile of Metro stations now have vacancy rates of 4.8 percent, while structures located farther away clock in at 11 percent.

Some companies are switching to “spoke” office arrangements with a centrally located main office surrounded by satellite branches that are more convenient for workers living in those areas, Womack said.

Capital One is taking the opposite approach and finds the idea of being together powerful, Griffith said.

The Washington metropolitan area’s retail recovery continues apace as COVID worries wane, Womack added.

Recent data show 55 percent of people are spending more on experiences than things. Sixty-six percent feel comfortable shopping in stores and 62 percent are not bothered by the prospect of dining in restaurants, he said.

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