Hartford Business Journal feature: Tom York on office design, vibe to coax back remote workers

Photo | Red Skies photography – Farmington health benefits company OneDigital’s new office space includes an open layout with glass partitions, sanitizing stations, new furniture with easily cleanable fabrics, and a dozen “huddle rooms” where workers can grab a few minutes of privacy when needed.
A year ago, Windsor Federal Savings was nearly done designing the interior of its new administrative office space on Day Hill Road when COVID-19 struck and sent the mutual bank and its architect scrambling.

After some delay, the roughly 20,000-square-foot office space is now complete and looks completely different than originally imagined, following a series of safety-inspired changes to the layout, appliances and other elements, including high cubicle walls, specialty air filters and touchless toilets.

“We took a major pivot,” said George Hermann, CEO of Windsor Federal, which has $655.8 million in assets. “The health of our employees is the most important thing and drives everything we do. We tried not to worry too much about cost.”

Employee benefits advisor OneDigital was in a similar boat, having just signed a lease to move to updated space at 195 Scott Swamp Road in Farmington right around the time COVID-19 reached Connecticut.

“It was expensive, but it was a pivot that I think will pay us back in spades because our employees will feel safe coming back,” said Emily Bailey, OneDigital’s managing principal.

Emily Bailey
Whether other Greater Hartford office tenants and landlords decide to make similar investments largely remains to be seen, but area real estate brokers, architects and interior designers say many company leaders are putting their heads together now to determine what their physical workplaces will look like moving forward.

Over the next year, 87% of the 133 U.S. executives recently surveyed by accounting and consulting firm PwC said they expect to make changes to their real estate strategy, including consolidating office space, opening new suburban satellite locations, and redesigning the workplace for a more hybrid model where some office employees rotate in and out of shared spaces.

Jon Putnam

“The ice is cracking a bit and there are definitely more decisions being made,” said Cushman & Wakefield Executive Director Jon Putnam, adding that lease expiration dates will drive much of the activity, so don’t expect everything to change overnight.

Many Greater Hartford office employees continue to work at least part of the week remotely, and most employers aren’t setting hard-and-fast dates for when they want workers to return to the office. That’s true for both Windsor Federal and OneDigital. They are allowing office personnel to work remotely, though some staff choose to come to the office.

“I think we’re still in a paralyzed wait-and-see mode to a large extent,” said Tom York, principal of East Hartford-based real estate advisory firm Goman+York. “I’m not sure that a lot of the office occupiers really know exactly what they plan to do in the next six to nine months.”

Tom York
But York, who helps companies plan for such changes, is urging them to think hard about it right now.

Healthcare workers so far have administered roughly 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S., and it could just be a matter of months — if everything goes well — before the coronavirus is significantly suppressed. In response to an improving outlook, Gov. Ned Lamont recently eased pandemic capacity restrictions on offices.

“It’s around the corner,” York said. “To be ready to adapt to that change, planning needs to start happening now.”

Many expect that could lead to office tenants downsizing their square footage and relying more on shared workstations used by one employee one day and another the next. However, laying out workstations to accommodate social distancing could mean that offices remain similarly sized.

York has cautioned clients against making hasty decisions to switch to a fully remote work model in order to cut costs.

“The pendulum can swing too far,” he said. “How are you going to deal with your company culture, how are you going to train new employees, what happens to spontaneous collaboration?”

Crash course

“We had no space whatsoever in our branch offices,” Hermann said. “We were using every usable square foot we had.”

In overhauling the earlier office design to address health concerns brought on by COVID-19, the bank and Hartford-based Tecton Architects nixed the collaborative layout featuring four-foot low cubicle walls, opting instead for six-foot high walls wrapped in antimicrobial fabric and topped with glass to allow for as much natural light as possible.

Arrows on walls direct foot traffic to avoid employees bumping into each other in hallways, and deliveries are accepted in the lobby so visitors aren’t needlessly directed further inside the building.

The bathrooms have automatic-flush toilets (which required a water-line upgrade) and touchless sinks. The coat closet and other doors have hardware so they can be opened with an elbow rather than a germy hand.

There are high-end “MERV 13” filters in the HVAC system, which are capable of filtering tiny particles such as a respiratory droplet from a sneeze or cough. Desktop HEPA filtration units at every workstation provide additional protection, on top of requiring workers to wear face masks when they aren’t at their seats.

Choosing what to buy and install was no simple task, given it was early in the pandemic and scientists were scrambling to better understand the novel coronavirus.

“There was no playbook for this,” Hermann said. “A lot of it was just reading and reading and reading.”

The investments added up quickly, inflating the total project budget by about 10%, he said.

Ted Cutler
“There’s always going to be those Class C or B offices where a company just needed space and whatever the landlord gives them they’ll be fine with it, but for companies that want to retain their people and hire the best talent, they will want to position their spaces to be competitive and they’ll look for landlords and developers to do that for them or with them,” Cutler said. “It will pressure building owners to think differently about what they have to offer.”

A homier feel

Putnam, the Cushman & Wakefield broker, was recently touring vacant office space in the region with prospective tenants and he noticed at one location that someone had hung up St. Patrick’s Day decorations.

“Then I realized, these are from last year,” Putnam said. “It’s like this time capsule.”

Employers should think about creating office environments that workers feel enthusiastic about returning to, and should also consider blending in elements that remind them of home, from warmer colors to more comfortable seating, said Thomas J. Quarticelli, principal at Amenta Emma Architects in Hartford.

Thomas J. Quarticelli
Architects call that design style “resimercial.”

“People might have gotten used to sitting on a couch with a laptop, so maybe let’s not sit around a conference room in chairs when we can sit on furniture in a circle and talk,” Quarticelli said. “It puts people at ease and gives you a more calming atmosphere.”

OneDigital went for that approach at its newly-outfitted 19,000-square-foot office, where there’s a mix of cubicles, lounge seating, various nooks and crannies where employees can work away from their desks, and of course, lots of plants.

“Now our people are excited to come back to work,” she said. “Before they might have said ‘I don’t want to go back to the office, it’s dreary, it’s the same space we’ve been in for 10 years.’ ”

Dawn Monde, senior vice president of strategic accounts at workplace furniture and technology provider Red Thread, which worked with OneDigital on its office renovation, said most of her clients want to create the same effect with their office space as OneDigital has.

Dawn Monde
“The majority of customers feel there is a need to have a place where people will want to come back to,” Monde said.

She said building flexibility into office designs will be important for adapting to future conditions.

Even if COVID-19 were somehow eradicated tomorrow, Windsor Federal’s Hermann said he wouldn’t regret any of the safety investments his bank made at its new office.

“With the flu or other airborne illnesses, it’s going to be a safer environment,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing. And who can say something like this isn’t going to happen again?”

HBJ File Photo
George Hermann, CEO of Windsor Federal Savings, stands in his bank’s newly designed office space, which includes high cubicle walls.