(STG Design)

Austin firm STG Design developed a virtual tour of its workplace so employees can familiarize themselves with changes before returning to the office.

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Consider the elevator. Commercial ones are typically between five and eight feet square, according to the Elevator Lab, meaning only one person can be inside while also observing social distancing guidelines. In a busy office building, with rush hour elevator traffic at the start and end of the workday, this poses a challenge. During a pandemic, it gets worse.


"Man, this one's been really tough," said Tim Hendricks, senior vice president of Cousins Properties' Austin office, during a webinar hosted by the Austin Chamber of Commerce last week.

Elevator protocol is just one of the many questions facing businesses as they decide whether to reopen their offices at limited capacity, now that the governor has given the green light to do so. Other concerns include temperature checks, one-way foot traffic, liability and masking requirements.


(STG Design)


Cousins, a real estate firm, surveyed its Austin tenants—some 185 businesses with offices in the central business district and at the Domain—about their reopening plans and heard a wide range of responses. "We do think that the majority of our customers will be phasing in in some kind of staggered process," Hendricks said during the webinar.

This is the case for STG Design, a commercial architecture and interior design firm. Its Austin office is home to 80 employees and will begin a phased reopening June 1, associate principal Paul LaBrant said.

Initially, employees will return to the office at a scheduled time to clean their desk and clear out any personal items. In mid-June, employees will be able to return based on their assignments. "It is very much on a voluntary basis," LaBrant said.

In preparation, STG is marking the floor with arrows to help staff adjust to one-direction foot traffic, setting up sanitation stations and blocking off certain desks to allow for social distancing. The company will also offer employees virtual walkthroughs of the updated office. "So they're not having to figure it out once they get there," LaBrant said.

As STG prepares for its own reopening, its staff is also considering how this pandemic will change office design—and is working with its clients to help them make the shift. "The workplace of today is not going to work for the workplace of the immediate tomorrow," LaBrant said.

He foresees offices becoming more limited in both size and scope—offering a hub for innovation and meetings—as teleworking becomes more routine. Part of this change, he said, is because employees with children will likely be unable to come into the office for many months as schools and camps continue to adjust their operations. But it is also the result of new priorities.


(STG Design)


"The American work culture has always been work first, family second," LaBrant said. "Now I think we are forced into seeing that our lives matter as much as the work that we do, and there's going to be a balance there."

While STG will begin its reopening next month, some of its local clients are planning to stay home through November—"just because they want to see how other companies do this, and they're still seeing productivity … while their teams are working from home," LaBrant said.

For those companies that do reopen in the coming days and weeks, communication will be paramount.

"The best defense for liability for your business or your company is going to be a well-crafted, comprehensive return-to-office plan that is vigorously followed at your place of business," said Pamela Madere, a real estate attorney at Jackson Walker's Austin office, during the same webinar.

Such a plan—if developed in accordance with CDC guidelines—will help employees know what to do and protect employers from lawsuits. It may also come in handy if COVID-19 cases spike.

"We really want to be ready for a future outbreak," Madere said. "We know it's coming at some point."

(Bob Daemmrich)

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