Lightfield Studios, Adobe Stock

Expert advice: COVID safety, real estate and office design

Constant COVID change requires analysis, buy-in and flexibility by company leaders. Businesses must scrutinize raw pandemic data and create clear workplace safety policies. And they must drive offices that are purposeful and adaptable. 

The information and case numbers coming at us about the COVID-19 Delta variant change nearly every week—and geographies and opinions couldn’t be more different. That puts business leaders in a tricky position: how do you decide on best workforce safety policies, then get people on board with them and plan for an always-changing office?

Last week, SJF Ventures hosted an expert panel discussion and interactive conversation for its portfolio companies to help address many of these questions. The takeaways? COVID-19 workplace planning requires careful analysis of data. It requires clear communication of workplace rules—and buy-in from C-level staff. It also requires a newly defined purpose for today’s office—and how to help employees get the most out of the places where they work. And lastly, it requires the ability to adapt to whatever comes next.

“It’s obviously a very evolving topic,” said Dr. Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a Harvard fellow and associate research scientist at the NYU School of Global Public Health. She serves as a consultant to the European CDC and private and public companies on COVID-19 preparedness. “Where we stand today may have been very different from where we stood last week and from where we will stand next week.”

Leaders must understand the raw data.

Companies are struggling to determine whether to mandate vaccines, require masks or delay a return to the office entirely. In making those decisions, Piltch-Loeb shared, it’s important to really understand the raw data that’s out there about the Delta variant. The data points can be overwhelming and difficult to make sense of, and how you look at the data can be colored by where you get your information.

To determine if COVID-19 is getting better or worse, it’s a good idea to look at positive COVID-19 cases in your geography—but even more important, look at whether COVID cases are taking more or fewer ICU beds in your area. Combine this information with your area’s vaccination rates, whether your population skews older or whether you’ve got a greater proportion of immunocompromised people.

Be sure to compare relevant data points, too. Twenty positive cases among 400 tests taken on Tuesday, for instance, is different from getting 20 positive cases among 200 on Monday, said Piltch-Loeb. “We’re going to get a very different ratio, obviously, and making sense of that number is going to be really challenging,” she said. Requesting transparency on how testing is being done in various places can help. 

It’s also important to note that the rates of breakthrough cases—positive cases among the vaccinated—are not equivalent to rates of cases among the unvaccinated. The transmission attributable to vaccinated people is significantly less and the transmission period lasts for a shorter amount of time than with the unvaccinated.

Limiting the spread at the office is not one-size-fits all.

When it comes to limiting the spread among employees, it’s a good idea to take a layering approach, said Piltch-Loeb. Social distancing is good, but masking is even better and vaccinations are the best protection. If you choose to go the masking route, take into account roles or job functions and whether people need to work in person and in close quarters. 

The reality is that mask wearing—whether it’s among only the unvaccinated or everybody—should establish a normative behavior, said Piltch-Loeb. “Make it comfortable for people to wear masks and make them feel comfortable expressing that they feel safe wearing a mask.” 

She also recommends making the vaccine very accessible for all employees and outlining the implications of not being vaccinated. Leaders should have the same policy for all workers—even top brass. “You want to provide educational opportunities for information and make a decision that’s going to fit the culture of your company,” emphasized Piltch-Loeb. 

Obviously, having everyone in your company vaccinated is ideal. But if you choose to mandate that all employees must be vaccinated, think about how to enforce the policy, and be prepared for the collateral costs that you could lose a small percentage of your workforce, she noted. Organizations with more than 100 employees will be required to mandate vaccines under coming Occupational Safety & Health Administration rules.

Remember, employees have missed the office.

While productivity did climb during the pandemic with remote work, it wasn’t exactly perfect for everyone, according to Ella Cooper, who helps businesses in lease transactions as senior associate at Cushman & Wakefield, one of the largest three commercial real estate companies in the world.

Cooper presented results of a broad survey of 60,000 workers conducted by Cushman & Wakefield as well as additional research conducted in partnership with George Washington University during the pandemic. It found that learning, wellness and a sense of connectedness took a big dive, especially among younger workers. 

“Everyone probably thought Gen Z would really thrive from home,” said Cooper. But for young people living in expensive urban spots like New York and San Francisco, it meant working and living inside small one-bedroom or studio apartments, and many people moved back in with their parents during the pandemic. 

Those with jobs that focused on process-based tasks did better at home than those who worked in teams. Yet for many, the home office actually led to increased stress and anxiety, weight gain and even musculoskeletal conditions and pain—from decreased movement throughout the day in a home office, said Cooper. “There’s just so much more dynamic movement in an office space that you overlook when you’re at home,” she said.

The office of the future will be about more than just operational goals.

The pandemic has been particularly thorny for leaders trying to manage their real estate footprint and rethink how their offices provide value in the post-pandemic world. 

Going forward, companies will need a real estate strategy that isn’t just about meeting operational and financial goals, but one that supports every aspect of a business, including culture, mission, talent, recruitment and retention, said Cooper. 

The future of the office, however, is not binary. It will be a hybrid future with people both in the office and working remotely. Going forward, an office should have the tools and space that facilitates socialization, collaboration, in-person meetings, better resources and networking with colleagues. Employees want to feel connected to company culture, to get exposure to leadership and to find informal learning opportunities, said Cooper. 

The office must become fluid—and traditional construction won’t work.

The way we work amid a pandemic is different than it was in 2019, and the floor plans must be adjusted in many cases. This could look like hoteling, hot desking or creating small meeting rooms or special private spaces for Zoom calls. 

The good news: there’s an abundance of short-term subleases available since companies abandoned their leases during the pandemic. But reconfiguring that space quickly to accommodate your workforce can be time-consuming—think six months—and expensive—about $125 per square foot in New York City. 

Prefab modular spaces have emerged as an effective tool for managing uncertainty and constantly changing needs. Installing prefab walls and spaces by ROOM can cost 27% less and take just two to three weeks to get up and running. They are designed to last 10 to 15 years, and they can be easily moved, added or subtracted based on changing needs—whether it’s a dedicated room for group brainstorming, or a room for quiet focus work. They also come with sensors that give insight into how space is being used.

“Instead of being stuck with an existing floor plan, you get to adapt,” said Brian Chen, co-founder and CEO of ROOM, maker of modular office products. ROOM is also one of SJF’s portfolio companies.

The new hybrid work environment and the demand for video conferencing prompted the company to collaborate with Zoom and HP to create a “Room for Zoom,” a turnkey video conference space with pre-installed Zoom software, optimal VC lighting, a sit-stand desk and soundproof walls. The company also has larger video conference rooms that use Jabra cameras to provide a 180-degree view of the in-office group. 

“You can create a really level playing field. Regardless of whether somebody is dialing in or actually meeting in person,” said Chen.

Opinions, information, and decisions around the pandemic are constantly evolving. Leadership amid COVID-19 requires a nimble but well-researched approach, whether it involves workforce safety policies, intentional employee engagement, renegotiating office leases or reconfiguring floor plans in response to changing needs.

About SJF Ventures

SJF Ventures invests in high-growth companies mitigating climate change, advancing economic opportunities, and improving health. SJF has invested in 75 portfolio companies since 1999 and has offices in Durham, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. For more information, visit