The Business of

Commercial Real Estate: The Post-Pandemic Office

Commercial Real Estate

When the SunTrust Center first capped Orlando’s skyline in 1988, shoulder-high cubicles filled offices with an attempt at privacy and hints at collaboration.

Cue up the early 2000s, when low-profile cubicles ushered in a cacophony of office chatter and keyboard percussion. Next, in the 2010s, downtown companies like commercial real estate firm CBRE and others went to “benching.” Not to be confused with workouts at the YMCA, the concept marshaled worker mobility: Take your laptop and that framed family photo to the desk du jour. 

Work-sharing then became the cool thing, with startups in The Plaza downtown and Church Street Station intermingling and, theoretically, trading ideas. 

Today, the pandemic is likely to drive the next evolution of office space: experiential design. Often mentioned in connection with the way customers experience brands, experiential design also applies to a space that enables employees to feel connected, facilitates workflow and puts an emphasis on emotional and physical well-being. In an office tower, that might look like larger private work areas where people can maintain social distance and a new awareness of hygiene, along with gathering areas that are spread out but configured to encourage brainstorming and other social interaction without an enclosed conference room.

Organizations will emerge from the pandemic in varied ways, but those that hope to progress understand there’s no going back to the rigid work situations employees experienced before the pandemic. Their talent pool will be quick to jump at job opportunities that offer them a different type of workspace — along with flexible office hours, of course.

As the Orlando region grapples with empty offices and “business casual” refers to jammie bottoms, what will Orlando’s office sector look like moving ahead?

“Coming into the office will be all about collaboration,” said Yvonne Baker, a longtime commercial real estate executive in Orlando and executive director of the Florida State University Real Estate Center. “Before, you could come to do work at the office and go outside to socialize. Now the model is: People do their work at home and come into the office to be social and collaborate.”

Any square footage that isn’t being used for actual work will be dedicated to space that inspires collaboration, which could be anything from whiteboard walls to game rooms.

The elixir of business, it seems, lies in workers brainstorming new ways to get clients, produce more products, navigate regulations, beat competitors and sometimes even find money. Work still gets done, but it’s the brilliance of new ideas that determines the future. 

If nothing else, the last year has taught us that Zoom, Teams and Skype are the lifeblood of remote workers. But those platforms are a poor substitute for the kind of hangout space where workers sketch concepts on a napkin or build on each other’s ideas over empty lunch plates. 

People work at their desks. They conspire on new ideas just about anywhere other than their desks — at least that’s the prevailing thought of commercial office brokers.

Lake Nona’s early architects understood this as they sought stakeholders for today’s Medical City, designed to attract the best minds in health and wellness with hospitals, a medical school, research institutions, sports facilities and mind-body performance businesses. They believed public spaces, eateries and events would draw together brain trusts who would collaborate after meeting each other coincidentally.

Downtown Orlando and its emerging Creative Village have some of that same je ne sais quoi with a commons area, a University of Central Florida library, and classes within walking distance of jobs and entertainment. Developers hope a new park with interactive light decorations will add to the intellectual mix.

Beyond parks, pingpong tables and workplace kitchens, offices are also likely to see a reversal of the long-declining average amount of space allocated to workers. It has averaged about 130 square feet but could expand due to social distancing demands, Baker said.

How much experiential design, or collaboration design, translates into a more creative culture can be hard to measure. Nobody tracks “lightbulb” moments. But when you’re stuck
on a Zoom call while the kids watch cartoons and chase the dog, the coffee bar at the office might sound like a pretty bright idea.

Mary Shanklin

MARY SHANKLIN is a University of Central Florida journalism instructor, a freelance journalist and the founder and publisher of Fifth Estate Media.

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