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Returning to Work in Your Suburban Office

Author Melissa Strickland

Tags Insight

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Categorizing Suburban Conditions

Returning to work in the suburban office will be different than returning to their urban counterparts. Namely because the suburban occupational structure is different. In a standard suburban work environment, there are two predominant situations: companies that occupy a whole building, and ones that are tenants in shared buildings. The architecture itself of the suburban workplace is distinct as well. Buildings generally aren’t higher than 4 stories and don’t have a few thousand people occupying and traveling through them daily.

When it comes to the return to the workplace, whether you’re a suburban or urban employee, one key point is aligned: we’re doing it in phases. Phase 1, occurring in the next month or so, will start with about 20% of employees returning to work, all at a carefully calibrated distance. Phase 2, timing yet to be determined, will shift this in-office population up to 50% and won’t occur until it is deemed safe. It’s likely Phase 2 varies by location. Finally, Phase 3 will be a full capacity return of the workforce to the office. Even if a vaccine is created and widely distributed, we don’t think Phase 3 will occur. Not really.

The suburban office is well prepared for Phase 1. They generally have more generous sized workspaces than their urban counterparts already, which will help maintain a 6-foot radius between employees at individual workstations. But that isn’t an all-encompassing approach to immediate return. Bathrooms, hallways, stairwells, elevators, and other shared spaces that employees use on a daily basis, may not be pre-disposed to safely handle a 20% user capacity at this time. Any return to work plan needs to include strategies around both workspaces themselves and surrounding environments.

A difference between suburban and urban workplaces occurs in how employees get to the office. Most people in suburban offices don’t rely on mass transit when commuting to work. This significantly helps mitigate the possibility of exposure within the employee population and is allowing suburban workforces to feel more ready to return.

In order to ensure a successful return to the workplace, companies need to think about the transition back holistically and consider a realm of changes within their physical environments that prepare for short- and long-term.

Planning for Now

As companies who occupy the whole building are working through how to re-open for Phase 1, they’re figuring out top-of-the-list considerations that will allow employees to return. Items like new capacity, displaying new etiquette and policies clearly, determining strategic circulation patterns from the building entrance and through to each floor, adjusting bathroom occupancies, adding sanitation stations, updating cleaning protocols, limiting food and pantry options, and considering possible A/B shift plans, are all getting considered right now.

Just as important as the return plan is the communication of this plan. Employers need to clearly relay their efforts and outcomes to all employees to remove anxiety people may be having about returning to the office and to generate buy-in for impending cultural and behavioral shifts. Changes like one-way circulation, which may seem trivial on Day 1 at a 20% capacity, will be critical as that percentage shifts up over time.

Clients constantly ask about changes they can make right now to help show their employees that health and safety are the top priority. Our recommendation is to make upgrades that will provide health and safety benefits now and in the future. We strongly feel that our clients should not apply band-aid solutions for the sake of assuaging a present issue and rushing employees back. Instead, we recommend considering upgrades like touchless systems that will continue to serve your population 5 years down the road. Similarly, we recommend placing fire stair doors on magnetic hold opens connected to the fire alarm system where permitted. We are also prioritizing upgrading all bathroom and pantry fixtures to be automatic.  More involved, but equally important, strategies include upgrading MEP systems to improve the indoor air quality and filtration. These upgrades will not only help during this pandemic, but will continue to support the health and wellness of employees – a goal many of our clients were already working towards before this pandemic.

For companies in a shared building, we recommend considering what can be done within your individual workspace and the common building spaces. These improvements can align with what landlords can do to make their building more attractive to future tenants. For more information on landlord recommendations, see our Insights for Commercial Buildings.

We see a lot of band-aid situations out on the market, like plexiglass or felt divider screens for people to build a shield or fort around them during the Phase 1 return. If they are coming to work to be that isolated and hidden, then why are they in the office at all? This begs a bigger question relevant to all our clients: why are people coming back to the office at all if working from home has been successful? For more on why people are returning and what the workplace could become, read about The Return to Normal: Why and What If.

Planning for the Future

At HLW, resiliency is a core tenant to our firm culture, so we try to take what we learned from our 135-year history, apply it to current situations, and use it to look forward.

In many industries, the last two months have affirmed – and accelerated – trends that were already on the rise. For example, working from home has expedited the appetite and acceptance that companies have to trust employees with autonomy and flexibility. Once family life returns to normal (especially as children are able to go back to school), the home office could become where individual work occurs and the shared workplace could be for collaboration, team building, training and development, mentorship, culture, and socialization.

This, of course, depends on job function and location, but particularly for suburban companies, we predict that all employees will work from home anywhere from 1-4 days a week. These will be heads down focus days. Then, in the office days will be team planning, in-person meetings, 1-on-1 collaboration, opportunities for mentorship, shared learning sessions, departmental training, and other opportunities to be a part of the culture and socialize with colleagues.

The overall landscape of how the office is designed will need to change to support this new team-based way of working, as opposed to the individual structure it currently upholds. Team structured spaces will need to be designed to support different teams and how they function, collaborate, and breakaway to work.

Of course, individual workspace within the office won’t go away. People will need breaks throughout the day to catch up on their work or have heads down time, and some prefer to do this at a desk with an ergonomic chair. But this won’t look like the workplace we currently use. We predict this shift will be the end of rows and rows of workstations and further the evolution towards the activity-based workplace. This new workplace will emphasize the team above the individual.

Going Local, Staying Global

This new office organization will allow companies to shift their real estate portfolios. Large urban headquarters are already in the process of de-densifying, meanwhile smaller home base offices have been popping up in the suburbs that surround major cities and other locations. This flexibility of location, paired with the new ability and buy-in around working from home, will allow companies to recruit diversified talent regardless of that individual’s location.

Here at HLW, we have an office in Madison, NJ, 30 miles from our New York City headquarters, and a pop up StudioGo office in Stamford, CT. These satellite locations have allowed us to grow localized teams. During the coronavirus pandemic, New Jersey has been one of the hardest hit states in the U.S., which has slowed down our projects in that market. As a branch of a global firm, though, we have been able to use this time to create cross-office teams and support other markets that have not slowed down. The success of this new model is causing us to consider how we can integrate global collaboration into our project work in the long-term.

With each success story – and lessons learned along the way – our mindset and approach to team structure evolves. Now more than ever, our local teams are connecting globally, both internally and with clients, to be resilient.