For over a year, Orange County employers have sought to refigure the use of their office space to adjust to an ever-changing “new normal.”
Now, with a majority of local adults fully vaccinated and the state open for business, those employers have a clearer idea of what the post-pandemic office looks like.
Hint: Plexiglas and walkway signage doesn’t play as large of a role as many initially thought.
“All of the thoughts we had a year ago have changed. We were in the middle of a crisis, and now we can see beyond the crisis,” said Greg May, executive vice president at commercial brokerage Newmark, which has its local office in Irvine.
It’s still not clear what the future of OC’s physical workspace will look like, though brokers and design experts that work with companies to create their workspaces are starting to see hints of the new office reality.
“Most office tenants held off on making leasing decisions last year, which created a buildup in demand that’s been growing each month,” said Jay Carnahan, founder of Irvine brokerage Orion Property Partners.
“Many tenants are now looking to move into a new space that’s a more inviting place to work, with amenities and features that help encourage employees to return.”
The new office normal might not be so new; many current trends were prevalent before the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.
“It looks like what the office looked like before, but with more flexibility,” May said.
All of Newmark’s 60 Irvine employees have returned to in-person work, which has helped bring back a sense of normalcy and foster in-person collaboration between teams, May notes.
“Returning to the office really made us realize how much you miss out when you’re working from home,” May said.
Real estate companies in general have been among the aggressive firms in the area to bring their workers back to the office, essential businesses aside.
Newport Beach’s Irvine Co., the largest property owner in OC, and the state’s largest office landlord with a portfolio in excess of 50 million square feet, brought back most of its workers to the office a few weeks ago.
It’s largely business as usual at the privately held company, officials tell the Business Journal.
This hasn’t been the standard policy across the region, with many employers still remote, or adopting a hybrid workforce with flexibility between in-person and remote staff.
May estimates that 40% of Orange County’s pool of leased offices are still largely unoccupied.
“I think many employers are still in a wait-and-see mode,” he said. “I expect a majority will return after Labor Day. That’s when we’ll have a clearer idea of what people are doing.”
What does this mean for the office layout of today?
Companies are still seeking open-floor plans and collaborative meeting spaces just as before the pandemic, albeit with a smaller headcount.
“Everyone’s looking to create a less dense workplace,” said Orion Property’s Carnahan.
Requests for design firm Gensler are “all over the board,” from companies debating ditching the office altogether to investing in a new, modernized workplace, notes Anne Bretaña, principal and managing director of the company’s Newport Beach office.
“Most clients are eager to return to the office and bring employees back together,” Bretaña said.
As part of that return, offices are expanding their outdoor common areas for meetings, reactivating lunch and conference rooms, and modernizing work stations.
“Each workspace at Gensler now has a video camera,” Bretaña said. Rather than having multi-person meetings with out-of-town clients in conference rooms, the meeting participants remain at their own desks.
While most offices were worried about quick fixes a year ago to COVID-proof the office, employers are now looking to add unique areas and programming to engage employees.
Gensler notes that hoteling desks, employees sharing work stations as people alternate which days they come into the office, has become a common option for the hybrid workforce.
Carnahan, meanwhile, is also thinking of hoteling with one of Orion’s office spaces, Centerview at the Irvine Concourse.
“We want to make this office complex feel like a hotel, where employees can eat, socialize and have different places to work and gather,” Carnahan said.
A new addition to the office complex along Main Street and Von Karman Avenue is Porch & Swing, a contemporary restaurant concept led by head Chef Justin Werner, a former winner of reality cooking show “Chopped” and a former chef at Santa Ana’s Playground restaurant.
A handful of additional new restaurants adjacent to the complex, along Main Street, are also nearing completion. Most have ample outdoor seating.
Amenities like this can aid in hiring efforts, Carnahan notes, with the office space helping to “attract talent in Orange County.”
Gensler itself has seen an uptick in applications from the millennial workforce, especially as younger workers continue to relocate from cities to less dense suburban metro areas.
“Orange County has benefitted from that migration,” Bretaña said.