As western Mass and the country slowly starts relaxing some COVID-19 lockdowns, many people are starting to envision a time when we can stop working at our kitchen tables and return to the office. But what will those offices look like when we do return? Producer Dave Fraser shares this story. 

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: As the region and the country slowly makes their way toward relaxing certain COVID-19 lockdowns, many of us are starting to envision a time when we can stop working at our kitchen tables and return to the office. But, what will those offices look like when we do return? Producer Dave Fraser gives us a look at office life after COVID and the future of commercial real estate.

Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: For the past 12 months, things have been pretty quiet in the region’s office buildings, most companies sent their employees home last spring and many have yet to return.

Ben Markens, The Markens Group: If you would’ve asked me in January, a year ago, if we would work remote, I would tell you I have two answers. No, and hell no.

Dave Fraser: Despite that feeling, Ben Markens is still having his employees work remotely. Markens is president and CEO of the Markens Group, an association management company in Springfield.

When COVID numbers skyrocketed last March, he knew he could not keep his employees in the office.

Ben Markens: We had all the technology in place. We proofed the technology. And actually, on March the 12th, we said half the staff will work from home and then that following Monday, all staff began working from home. We realized that we could do it and it was just not safe enough for us to be here.

Dave Fraser: The coronavirus pandemic shuttered thousands of U.S. restaurants, gyms and stores, kept office workers at home and left hotel rooms sitting empty.

Evan Plotkin is president and CEO of NAI Plotkin, a third generation family-owned commercial real estate management company in Springfield.

Evan Plotkin, NAI Plotkin: It didn’t take long before we noticed that there weren’t that many people in the building anymore. Everybody was working remotely in the beginning and it’s still pretty much that way.

I’m just now starting to see people coming back, which is a good sign. It’s kind of like seeing the first robin in spring, you know.

Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: Plotkin’s company manages office space around the region, including several in downtown Springfield.

At the start of the pandemic, he says there was a consensus that everyone working at home would want to continue doing so. But as the months wore on, the basic human need for social interaction made itself felt. And many workers are now anxious to return to the workplace in some capacity.

Evan Plotkin: Within my company and outside the company, the majority are “we can’t wait to come back. We can’t wait to be together” to you know, I think there’s a there’s a human need to be with your colleagues in a collaborative way.

Dave Fraser: It’s a similar story at 1500 Main Street, according to Demetrios Panteleakis, principal for the McMillan Group, the company that manages the twenty eight story office tower.

Demetrios Panteleakis, McMillian Group: Common sense would tell you that people are thinking about staying at home and working remotely. We’re experiencing the opposite of that. We’re experiencing people saying, “should I get more space? Do I have room to expand to keep my people farther apart? Do I increase the size of my cubicles to create more separation?”

But fundamentally, there seems to be a pent up frustration that people want to get back into a normal routine and have that socialization.

Dave Fraser: One of the people counting on that socialization is Ray Barry, owner of White Lion Brewing. After six years of hard work, he and his team are on the verge of opening their brewery and tap room on the ground floor of Tower Square.

Ray Berry, White Lion Brewing: It’s definitely been a journey with the pandemic. We’ve been mindful of the regulatory environment, the safety of others, but we’ve been slowly building out the process and we’re looking forward to spring 2021 and being able to open up our doors again, as long as the regulatory environment allows us to, and add another experience for downtown Springfield.

Dave Fraser: But getting employees back safely is the big question. Dividers, plexiglass, larger cubicles, all questions that Allison Arnold at Conklin Office, Furniture and Holyoke hears from her customers every day.

Alyson Arnold, Conklin Office Furniture: The first big trend that we noticed, obviously, was dividers, that we created a bunch of different options: stuff that can stand on a desk, stuff that can hang, stuff that can be mounted on work surfaces.

So, that’s kind of what we noticed once people were starting to think about getting employees back into the workspace.

Dave Fraser: Back in Springfield, Ben Markens is already working on a plan for when his employees come back to the office.

Ben Markens: So, we’ve looked at quite a few spaces in our building. Our landlord’s really terrific about that, lending us extra space if we need it.

And I think I’m at the point where we’re going to have to have about one hundred and fifty percent more space than we have now for the same amount of people, just so people have a little bit of moving around room.