The Future of Twin Cities Office Space

When Marvin employees finally step back into their physical offices in Warroad, they’ll find a very different space than the one they left in March.

That’s because it just so happened that Marvin was in the middle of redesigning its headquarters and manufacturing facilities in Warroad when the pandemic hit. Now, as the window and door maker considers its return-to-office plan, designers and architects are tweaking the next phases of renovation with an eye toward lessons learned during COVID-19. And while certain necessities, like highly filtered air and plenty of room to spread out, go without saying, others are a little more subtle. 

“We were hearing from people working from home that they love the natural light and will miss that,” says Christine Marvin, vice president of design strategy. Since Marvin is a window and door company, natural light was already a central element of the renovation by the firm HGA Architects and Engineers, but now they’re doubling down on it, Marvin says, seeking ways to beam more light everywhere. “And we’ve created zones that are more comfortable for heads-down work, with cozy nooks that have more of a feeling of working from home.”

In the real estate world, COVID-19 will herald changes similar to how 9/11 changed security, predicts Kelly Jameson, associate professor of finance and real estate at St. Cloud State University. “Office space will forever be changed,” she says. “Tenants will forever think of this in terms of how they use their office space.”

Before the pandemic, the physical office had already been on the cusp of change. Experiments with open-concept offices—think bright, loungey Silicon Valley tech spaces—and forays into remote work were already well under way, according to University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management professor Theresa Glomb. “What this has really shown, in a natural-experiment way, is proof of concept,” says Glomb, who is the Toro Company-David M. Lilly Chair in Organizational Behavior. “We actually can work from home.” 

What does that mean for offices? Not so much that they will go away as that they won’t resemble the cubicle-filled Dilbert-style workplaces we’ve grown accustomed to. “I like to say, ‘Don’t waste a crisis,’” Glomb says. “It would be a shame if everything went back to the way it was, but it also doesn’t need to completely swing to the other side. It can be a continuum.”

Because of long-term lease commitments, real estate trends almost always lag behind the economy, Jameson notes. But there is already widespread agreement about how office life will change—it will become much more flexible and, when well thought out, individually suited to companies.

“I don’t think people are going to unlearn the benefits of working from home,” says Amin Mojtahedi, the HGA design strategist working with Marvin. “Even when a vaccine is discovered, we have to think about what the future of work is going to look like. It doesn’t seem like everything is going to bounce back and look like it did eight months ago.” 

Next-generation office space

A few weeks into lockdown, people wondered, and maybe feared, if working from a kitchen counter would become standard operating procedure, in part because productivity early in quarantine seemed to soar. 

“Employees were fearful of losing their jobs, and everyone was trying to stay relevant,” says Brent Karkula, a managing director on Minneapolis’s agency leasing team at commercial real estate brokerage Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL). “Now a comfort level has set in, and people are maybe not working as hard from home.”

Not everyone, it turns out, is cut out to WFH exclusively and permanently. Employees generally need three things to thrive at work, Glomb says: feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Working from home is more likely to check the first two boxes, but not always the third. Working from an office can check the second two, but not always the first. In the post-pandemic world, companies have the opportunity to dream up new scenarios that check all three boxes.

An HGA survey of 3,680 employees across industries taken in late April and May showed that 46 percent of employees felt more productive at home compared to 20 percent in the office. Meanwhile, 50 percent felt more creative at home compared to just 16 percent in the office. Most chalked it up to less distraction at home. The only thing about the office that most missed was in-person connection. 

The survey also revealed that the chief concern people had with returning to the workplace wasn’t fear of disease but fear of losing the luxuries (no commute, flexible hours, comfort) associated with WFH. 

So, how do you get employees who have discovered the relative good of working from their couch back to the office? “There will be a little bit of compromise from both sides,” Karkula concedes. Thus, the hybrid, “best of both worlds” model. 

“Rather than a dedicated workspace for every employee every day, you may see office space become more of a hub,” he says. “Upper management might be there all the time, and there could be some people working from home permanently and a number coming and going. It’ll be way more socially acceptable for employees to breeze in and out.”

In that scenario, Karkula speculates, people get the peace and quiet and productivity that can come from working at home, plus office time to collaborate, bond, and socialize with coworkers. 

What might offices look like, then? 

Ongoing health concerns could spark temporary and permanent changes: materials that are easy to wipe down and touch-free technologies may become more popular choices for the long term, while one-way traffic and spread-out desks could shift based on evolving health concerns. 

But at many companies, changes will go far deeper than those easy-to-clean surfaces. “Designing for the six-foot distance is not the real challenge,” HGA’s Mojtahedi says. “The real challenge is creating for the sense of connection.” 

In an HGA rendering of a hypothetical architecture firm, for example, workspaces take their cue from campfires, drawing people to sit around islands with appropriately distanced desks. In order for employees to feel encouraged to “design their own day,” Mojtahedi says, taking a break may no longer be frowned upon but encouraged with easily accessible spaces for yoga and relaxing. And augmented reality could allow those working from home to interact with employees in the office at a table with whole-body presence. 

In order to develop a space that will foster innovation, Mojtahedi recommends treating the work environment as an experimental lab that is consistently creating new prototypes.“When you’re constantly iterating, you can gradually build the workplace of the future,” he says.

Location, location, location? 

The other major question is whether flagship offices in either downtown will decamp to the suburbs. Ultimately, it’s all about flex. Rather than a company basing all employees in the same location, be it downtown or a suburb, Karkula thinks employers could maintain a smaller “fancy, glitzy” downtown space for executives and open satellite offices on different sides of town. “Then you’re giving yourself access to different labor pools,” he adds. “You don’t limit yourself to one particular market or another.”

While it’s too early to say what the impact on downtowns will be, Deluxe Corporation offers a ray of hope for Minneapolis: The Fortune 1000 company recently announced it will move its headquarters from Shoreview to 8th Street and Marquette Avenue.

Wherever the office is, though, one thing is clear. “We’ve all realized it’s become more important than ever,” Karkula says. “The office is the glue that connects employees, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.”