A WeWork space offers ample room.

A WeWork space offers ample room. Photo by Ringo Chiu.

Removing furniture. Reducing the number of workstations. Alternating workdays or staggering start times. Queuing elevators.

These are just some ideas being considered by companies and building owners across Los Angeles who are trying to determine what work life will look like once Covid-19 restrictions begin to ease.

While health and government authorities have made recommendations, tenants and landlords are working on how to best create a safe environment when people return to the office.

From traditional downtown high-rises to cutting-edge coworking spaces, it’s likely that workers will be greeted by a variety of changes — some small, others more substantial — whenever they finally start venturing back to their cubicles and conference rooms.

“I think we’re all having the conversations right now,” said Jorge Colón, director of interior architecture and design for CO Architects in Hancock Park. “Even something as straightforward as going into the elevator. Elevators are very cramped spaces. It’s not just the workstation but points of entry — what are the pinch points?”

Rising Realty Partners Chief Executive Chris Rising said his downtown-based company has been engaging with tenants to discuss options and ways to make their buildings safer.

Rising said he has already added sanitizer dispensers, high-end air filters and that he plans to limit the number of people in an elevator to encourage social distancing and to offer optional temperature checks of people as they enter offices.

In the long term, Rising thinks some recent workplace trends could be reversed.

“Over the last three or four years, we’ve seen tenants, that are traditionally larger tenants, get smaller. We are already hearing from tenants about spacing out their current space or they might ultimately need more space,” Rising said.

Low-cost options

While landlords and tenants alike are exploring ways to allow a safe return to work, most are not looking to spend big bucks to do so.

“In the next year, organizations are looking at how they decrease the number of seats in their space,” said CBRE Group Inc. workplace specialist Lenny Beaudoin. “What’s going to be different isn’t the design of space, though some things will be different, but how we use that space.”

Many companies are trying to find ways to create distance without adding square footage.

“A lot of the repopulation plans that our clients are looking at are engaging in a format that will adjust the existing space as is and look at populating the office space in a way that creates that physical distancing without capital improvements,” said Peter Belisle, Southwest Market Director for Jones Lang LaSalle Inc.

Newmark Knight Frank’s Jennifer Frisk predicts a mix of private offices and the open-concept seating that had become popular in recent years.

Ryan Harding, also of Newmark Knight Frank, and Frisk report no major redesigns yet or lease negotiations requiring full overhauls.

Instead, Harding said, tenants are talking about adding hand sanitizers and how to safely have employees enter and exit conference rooms and common spaces. Beaudoin added that many companies will wait to see “how long we are going to be working in this new normal” before making major changes.

Belisle said some tenants are looking at grid workspaces that allow for social distancing but can be filled in later to take advantage of the space’s size.

Remote work

Simon Aftalion, development director of Beverly Hills-based real estate investment company Markwood, predicted the wide-open creative space trend in offices will see some changes. “As we move forward and emerge from isolation, we are likely to see an uptick in a preference for dedicated personal workspaces in office design,” Aftalion wrote in an email.

Aftalion said remote work will not replace the office but may become a larger part of operations, with businesses investing more heavily in remote technologies popularized during the Covid-19 shutdown.

He added that companies are likely to rethink existing office space, including “greater access to outdoor space as an office amenity.”

Colón said certain types of businesses will continue to require in-office teamwork, including his own field of design. “The creative studio around you is part of creative development,” he said.

He added that government organizations or businesses working with special security or confidentiality requirements may not adapt to a home office or home computer server.

First-hand experience

Kevin Kelley, co-founder and principal of the Shook Kelley design firm based in Hollywood and Charlotte N.C, is dealing head-on with post-Covid office planning — for his own business.

The firm had planned to move from its rehabbed building at Melrose Avenue and Vine Street to another Hollywood building. When the Covid-19 shutdown hit in mid-March Kelley decided against completing the purchase of the new location.

Today, he jokes that the firm is homeless as it weighs the next step.

“We are not going to be doing any heavy social distancing, but not creating any more intimacy, either,” he said of any potential new location.

Kelley said Shook Kelley’s grocery and retail clients have predictably become more concerned about eliminating germs and avenues of human contact. Beyond that, he said the Covid-19 crisis has intensified trends that were already growing for today’s companies, including a realization that a fancy (read: expensive) address is no longer important to doing business as so much has moved online.

“(Now we’re seeing) a gear shift,” Kelley said. “They’ve been likening it to before and after a tornado. (At first) they were freaked out; now it’s, ‘How are we going to clean up this yard?’”

Coworking moves

On the coworking front, industry leader WeWork Cos. Inc. has implemented staggered seating for tenants, is more frequently sanitizing common areas, and adding more signs to encourage social distancing and safe practices.

Industrious, which has a handful of locations spread around L.A., is working on testing and tracing, distancing, sanitizing every two hours, limiting contact and managing the use of space.

There will be 6 feet between workstations and a greater push toward private offices.

“The vast majority of our L.A. locations are almost entirely private offices, not open floor space,” said Jamie Hodari, chief executive and co-founder of Industrious.

Newmark Knight Frank’s Frisk said coworking companies with more private offices were likely to fare better now.

Shift to low-rises

John Drachman, a co-founder of Newport Beach-based Waterford Property Co., which has 1.5 million square feet of office space in Southern California., said a desire to feel safe may lead tenants away from high-rises.

That could mean more interest in low-rise buildings as tenants appreciate the option of taking the stairs rather than being in an elevator with strangers.

And in buildings that use elevators, Drachman said, copper is being added because experts have found it holds germs for less time than other surfaces.

Advanced air filters, Drachman says, will become a marketing feature in the future.

He said Waterford Property is interested in acquiring more low-rise, suburban buildings that will “perform well coming out of this.”

He has seen some tenants rearrange their spaces and is expecting more to move away from dense, open spaces. Some may even “need some more space because they got too small,” he said.

“The flipside scenario is, by everybody working from home, I think there are some employees who are going to continue working from home,” Drachman added.

Coworking Companies Take Steps to Ensure Safety Amid Covid-19

By Hannah Madans, Staff Reporter

Until the arrival of Covid-19, coworking spaces were among the hottest properties in the Los Angeles real estate market.

But just as the pandemic has rattled almost every other aspect of business life in L.A., it has also hit the coworking sector.

The largest brand in the market, WeWork Cos. Inc., has said it will stagger tenant seating and increase the frequency of cleaning. Another coworking company, Industrious, says it is also looking to increase spacing between tenants and developing testing and tracing, among other efforts.

“Coworking operators are going to have to change,” said Ryan Harding of Newmark Knight Frank. “Their financial models right now are not going to work. … Their space plans will have to change dramatically.”

Convene, which has a handful of coworking spaces downtown, says it has been spending the last few weeks ensuring its properties will provide safe environments when workers begin to return.

“We’ve been thinking about how we continue to create the premium experience that we’ve always been known for. Now, part of that means guaranteeing safety,” said Amy Pooser, Convene’s global chief operating officer and chief people officer.

The company is supporting “hybrid meetings” where some people are remote and others are in the office. It’s reconfiguring spaces, adding safety reminder signs and ensuring people will be six feet apart.

Convene is also clearing out some furniture so the space will only be at 50% density. In common areas like the snack table, there will be signs on the floor and walls, so people know where to stand. Snacks will move from buffet-style to prepackaged bento box-type meals.

There will also be paper masks readily available and increased cleaning services.

“We will also have signage that instructs people how to walk through the space so that you are walking one way to avoid the spread of pathogens,” Pooser said.

Convene has also partnered with Eden Health Inc., a private health care organization to provide Covid-19 testing, temperature screenings and questionnaires. The company will also help with treatment options.

While the partnership began before Covid-19, Pooser said 50% more employees are now using Eden’s app.

Jamie Hodari, chief executive and co-founder of Industrious, does not think a lot of the changes will stay in place over the long term. “Once there’s a vaccine, I don’t think most of the immediate safety interventions we are talking about here would be likely to persist beyond that,” he said.

Still, Hodari said coworking spaces may benefit when companies move away from one “mega headquarters” and instead have mid-sized offices or remote workers.

NKF’s Harding agrees. “The benefits of coworking are still there,” he said. “It was built for short-term flexibility, for tenants, for companies of all sizes.”

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