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When We Go Back To The Office, It Will Be A Different Kind Of Space

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We'll be back in our offices eventually. But things may look different from the last time we were there.

With so many people working from home during the pandemic, it raises the question: Will we ever go back to the office?

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Tom Johnson is president of NAI Martens in Wichita.

Tom Johnson, president of the Wichita commercial real estate firm NAI Martens, says probably — although it may look different from when you were last there.

With 40 years of experience, Johnson has seen office space change over the decades, from private offices to cubicles to open floor plans to the latest trend: working remotely.

Johnson talked with Tom Shine and The Range about the future of office space, what they might look like post-pandemic and what effect those changes could have on downtown development.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

On working at home vs. working in the office

I think a lot of people really found a home environment as a positive. But at the same time, I think there's a percentage of people who kind of felt that they miss the work environment: the idea creation and problem solving and face-to-face meetings and things of that nature. They wanted more socialization and person-to-person collaboration.

Designing an office with the health concerns of employees in mind

I think whether it's an existing space or whether someone's moving into new space … there's going to be a focus on health and wellness as we go forward.

I think all the space plans are going to look at, say social distancing and how we maneuver through the office space. We're going to have touch-free temperatures at the front entrance to offices; touch-free access intercoms. ... Parking garages are going to be touch-free with access to all floors. Touch-free faucets, soap dispensers and flush valves.

Using office space to recruit and retain employees

A lot of companies look at their office space as a recruiting tool and a retention tool, and making sure that they were providing an environment that was attractive to new employees and their current employees and providing… those amenities that helped them retain employees and recruit new employees. And those are going to continue as we go forward.

Whether the potential change in how office space is used could slow downtown development

Well, I think it has to, at least in the short term. I don't know the projections with regard to how many people are actually going to be working remotely once this pandemic passes. I think there's some industry experts that will tell you that it's going to stay at a pretty high level.

But anytime you diminish the number of in-place office workers in that downtown environment it's going to have an impact on the restaurants and even the bars in the evening after work or whatever it might be.

I'm not sure how dramatic that impact is, and it's going to be really hard to gauge until this whole thing passes.

Why all companies won’t make major changes to their office space

I don't see an overnight shift from the office environments we have today to something new and different. I think there's going to be some tweaks in how people are using space and maybe how they maneuver through their space and how they handle collaboration and meeting rooms and interaction and things of that nature.

But it's an expensive proposition to change what you're doing overnight to do something different. And after this pandemic, I think a lot of companies are stressed a little financially. And even though they may want to do something different, there may not be the funds available.

But they're going to do what they can to continue to be competitive of having a creative, collaborative, productive and healthy environment for their employees.

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, a board member of the Kansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.