This story was written for WRAL TechWire partner CBRE | Raleigh.

States across the country, including North Carolina, are slowly reopening amidst the coronavirus pandemic, and as COVID-19 persists, businesses and individuals are learning to navigate a new normal. For many professionals, it begs the question — how will the workplace look and operate as employees head back into the office in the coming months?

“It’s honestly still too early to get a full, clear picture because there’s still a lot of uncertainty regarding what the workplace is going to look like,” said Brad Corsmeier, an executive vice president of the investor leasing group at CBRE|Raleigh. In his role, Corsmeier works with investors and property owners of commercial real estate across the Triangle.

“The conversations that owners are having are around items which relate to wellness and safety, understandably,” Corsmeier continued. “Now there is a greater emphasis on health and safety standards. Touchless features in restrooms like faucets, toilets and soap dispensers and automated entry doors versus anything handheld are already becoming more commonplace.”

Corsmeier highlighted the Fitwel Standard and its growing importance to the commercial real estate community. According to the health certification system’s website, “The Fitwel Standard provides tailored scorecards for existing and new buildings and sites to optimize the unique opportunities for every project — whether it’s a single floor build-out or a large-scale development.”

Fitwel streamlines the process for landlords to optimize occupant health through evidence-based design and operational strategies that enhance buildings by addressing a broad range of health behaviors and risks.

Additionally, Corsmeier believes companies will also focus on the air quality of office environments. For example, landlords are prioritizing fresh air intake, better air quality, and higher levels of filtration.

“The conversations we’re having with landlords are about items and equipment to implement in the near term so people feel safe coming back to work as they reoccupy over the next coming months,” said Corsmeier.

For the past three months, many companies who have been able to, have operated remotely. Working from home and Zoom calls have become routine. But as North Carolina lifts restrictions and businesses reopen, social distancing signs, hand sanitizing stations, and masked employees are now customary and could be the standard of people’s offices too.

“Employees want to feel safe and they want to know that they’re going into a healthy work environment. It’s going to be up to these employers to provide that along with the owners of buildings,” said Heath Chapman, an executive vice president at CBRE | Raleigh. Chapman is a tenant representation broker who handles advisory and transaction services for office occupiers.

“I believe that most people still want to have an office away from their home. People want to be able to engage with their coworkers in person. They want that impromptu bump in with a colleague to talk about the next new idea or project they’re working on, along with the collaborative environment that comes with teamwork. People like the socialization, comradery and culture of an office environment,” said Chapman. “There will always be a place for the workplace, but I do feel like there will be more flexibility around allowing people to work from home if they need or want to. I think more employers are going to be open to providing their staff flexibility around how they work, and, with that, I believe you’ll see some enhanced technology around tools, products and services that support people not only working from home, but also working in the office.”

As mentioned, Zoom has become part of people’s daily work and personal lives as a result of COVID-19 and the work-from-home economy. Since the start of the pandemic, the company has exploded in both revenue and demand, with similar video conferencing tools like WebEx and GoToMeeting also gaining popularity. Over the last century, technology has changed the nature of work in almost every industry in America and will continue to do so as companies leverage it during this time.

Other trends that Corsmeier and Chapman see playing out in the months ahead are changes to office layouts and furnishings. For years, companies have been densifying their office spaces to include more people per square footage. To allow for social distancing, Chapman thinks the “de-densification of spaces” will start taking place so people don’t feel as if “they’re stacked on top of each other.”

“I don’t see a move to all hard-wall offices and people being closed in — I still think tenants will be leaning towards more open floor plans, but I think there will be more room for people to spread out,” he said.

“You’re going to probably see new furniture designs and layouts too — different kinds of workstations or cubicles with partitions, deconstructable materials to build walls and dismantle them,” said Corsmeier, noting that he believes there will be more collaboration between tenants and landlords on how they set up the workplace going forward.

Both real estate professionals note the importance of office space for company culture, productivity, and employee satisfaction and said that while times are unsure right now, physical workplaces still hold a lot of value for both businesses and employees.

Added Corsmeier, “There’s still a lot of uncertainty. I think as people start phasing back into the office and once a vaccine is identified, we’ll have a little more clarity. But right now, the most important conversation to have is around creating a safe workplace.”

This story was written for WRAL TechWire partner CBRE | Raleigh.