The Realistic Phases of Returning to the Office Post-COVID-19

Chicago, IL | May 11, 2020

The Realistic Phases of Returning to the Office Post-COVID-19

Our mantra for the post-COVID-19 world: Let's be practical, let's be genuine, let's help our clients with the best possible solutions.

Amid all the coronavirus coverage, there is a lot of noise and general advice about how companies should go back to work when isolation ends, stay-at-home orders lift, and we all continue to practice social distancing. Within the MB Real Estate Project Services department, we have realized that there's no one-size-fits-all solution for businesses as they return to offices in Chicago and beyond. Each situation has different considerations based on existing conditions, business strategies, budgets, and more. We must maintain focus on effective business operations while being good social stewards and providing a sense of safety and confidence for employees, customers, and visitors. Success on all fronts will come from well-considered and well-executed planning.

To bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to tackle the problems of current office spaces: dense cubicles and open office settings, closely packed collaborative spaces, and unhealthy personal and operational habits. We cannot predict the future, but we can draw on our extensive experience in the commercial real estate business, as well as the experiences of MBRE's integrated business units, to help you form sustainable strategies.

A Gradual Return

Offices in cities like Chicago and New York will not go from being empty to full again overnight. Think about the logistics of a crowded elevator, building security, and packed rush-hour commutes—a 100% return on day one is just not a plausible pandemic recovery scenario. For many big cities, the return to office life will be gradual. And while there is no universal answer, understanding how office life will phase back into reality will help our clients—and businesses outside of our portfolio—fulfill their number one desire: getting back to work safely and efficiently.

Below, we have outlined three return-to-work phases:

  • Phase one is the immediate tactical response of getting your teams back to work
  • Phase two is a more strategized response to improve the user experience of your office
  • Phase three is the refinement of these improvements that take into consideration the long-term, ever-changing environment of the post-coronavirus world

Thoughtfully and realistically addressing the problems ahead of you will help your firm to operate efficiently, serve your clients, and stay open—all as you apply your own best practices to keep your employees safe.

Who will decide how many people go back to work? Before you can make decisions about your own office, you will likely have government mandates giving directives. After that, buildings will individually have to communicate with tenants regarding occupancy protocols and building operations. Do not be surprised if your building makes changes to its systems, from elevator capacity to security and even HVAC. The goal is to have flexibility built into your strategy to absorb the inevitable ebb and flow of the new ways of conducting business to avoid unexpected situations.

Phase One

How can you prepare for the first day your employees return to the office?

First, assess the situation tactically. There are specific things that must be implemented on day one: appropriate social distancing plans, furniture reconfiguration or additions of physical barriers to provide separation, signage for new policies, new occupancy rules for conference rooms, and other group spaces, etc. Six-foot social distancing will, in most cases, reduce occupancy density. Start by looking at which workstations, desks, offices, and other spaces can be occupied at any given time. That is a critical tool for management to determine not just how many spaces can be occupied but also how many people can return to the office day one.

We will also consider the new ways you will have to interact with shared office equipment. Reconsider everything from printers to phones and conferencing equipment—will employees be using this equipment as often as they were before? Some equipment might be used less when workers return to the office with new work-from-home habits, and this may be an opportunity to cut some costs. Meanwhile, as people continue to social distance even after returning to the office, video conferencing and the related equipment may be even more critical, warranting more investment.

The goal is to "get back to work" by executing financially feasible and realistically executable plans, all while demonstrating safety and effective policy application to ensure staff and employee confidence.

Phase Two

Phase two is when you can start implementing the more thoughtful plans that were too significant or costly on day one. The period between first re-entering the workplace and the day when there is a vaccinated society, or at least 70% of the population has the antibody resistance and/or good treatments. While phase one is about tactical response to initially getting in the office— basic people placement, signage, and new hygiene—phase two will have more to do with meaningful physical modifications to the space. Cost and timing are the most important factors of phase two: what changes can you afford, and when can you physically implement these changes.

This step is where you plan and budget the time to reimagine overall office and cubicle spacing to accommodate safe distancing and improved business operations. You can also reconsider the physical touchpoints that used to be afterthoughts, like door handles and kitchen cabinets. No item is too small or insignificant to optimize for the new future.

Phase Three

Phase three is far off into the future after a viable vaccine has ensured an end of the coronavirus pandemic. What will the new workplace look like? Nobody knows for certain, and we are not going to attempt to predict the future.

We do have some thoughts, though! No, not all offices will be completely redesigned to ensure social distancing at every single cubicle and desk—some businesses simply cannot afford to do this. It is not a matter of moving a cubicle wall, mind you, but altering complicated layouts while considering things like data and power wiring or other physical elements difficult or costly to move. There will also be new workstyles that endure past your return to the office. Some workers might adopt stay-at-home lifestyles, or others will prefer free address seating in the office. There will be a definitive need to assess both the operational and physical needs of your business too. Therefore, these changes will have a larger impact on businesses with leases ending within the next two years; those who can leverage a redesign or can move into a new, more spacious, redesigned space.

Also, it is not enough to simply space things farther apart. Offices should be spaced out in smart ways that take other aspects into consideration. For example, they will be designed to be easier to clean.

As people adopt new habits from social distancing, so should the things they are designing and using. Collaboration is the essence of the modern workplace. It provides a creative studio for teams to brainstorm, strategize, and solve problems in a very human way. The plan isn't to get rid of collaborative spaces to adhere to social distancing guidelines but to evolve collaborative spaces into something that is both safe and useful.

Ultimately though, the more things change, the more—we are certain—they will stay the same. See you in the office soon!


  • Click here for the MBRE Re-Entering the Workplace Flyer
  • Click here for a sample MBRE COVID Occupancy & Office Readiness Plan
  • Click here for the MBRE Office Re-Entry Presentation

The MBRE Project Services team has unrivaled experience with a number of project types, including corporate offices, healthcare such as medical office buildings and life sciences and lab space, and student housing and school construction. Our team has successfully delivered over $800 million worth of projects on-time and within budget. With our buying power, clients benefit from the savings that matter to their business.

Learn more about MBRE’s Project Services Team.