Reopening N.J. — building … by building … by building

It’s all about flexibility and adaptability.

As the pandemic goes on, New Jersey and the entire nation continue the fitful process of reopening offices, retail outlets and even restaurants. And the way people interact during this return to public spaces is, by necessity, an entirely different process than anything we’ve experienced before.

In large part, the task of defining exactly what this new process for interaction entails — beyond the basics of wearing masks and maintaining appropriate social distancing — often falls to building owners and their property management professionals.

Employees returning to their jobs are typically curious or even anxious about new circumstances they’ll encounter. As a property manager for more than 25 years, with experience handling corporate, commercial, industrial and residential buildings, I’ve worked closely with a range of clients in recent months as we plan and prepare facilities to accommodate the return of New Jersey’s workforce.

These are my observations related to several types of properties:

Corporate

For several years, there’s been a trend toward a more open work environment, including some spaces providing cafeteria-style seating. But the pandemic has made such openness decidedly inadvisable, and closed, individual offices are now replacing cubicles, while additional walls are going up to segment spaces that were recently open. Even the materials being used are better suited to resisting germs. A prime example is the soaring popularity of plastic chairs, rather than padded furniture.

To allow for appropriate distancing, office buildings are much less densely populated than before the outbreak. This is accomplished chiefly via staggered hours or even daily shifts, along with having sales staff and other workers who are regularly away from the office continue to work remotely.

Another challenge is managing the flow of employees through the building, with a goal of eliminating bottlenecks that bring workers too close together. Many companies with buildings that feature multiple doors to the outside have designated some of these as “entrance only” or “exit only.”

Commercial

As months pass, an increasing number of retail stores are becoming permanent victims of the pandemic. This is having a devasting impact on strip malls, convincing some building owners to focus on renting space to professional services businesses, like doctors, accountants and lawyers, that may be better suited to withstanding extended closures. In a few cases, transforming a retail location into residential or mixed-use space is under serious consideration.

Because many grocery and other large stores have been open throughout the pandemic — more so than with corporate or industrial environments — people have a sense of what to expect from them. One significant change already in place at many “big box” stores that will likely find its way into smaller outlets is the use of automated checkouts. As this technology becomes increasingly streamlined, it’s popularity among store managers will almost certainly increase.

And, speaking of automation, the robotic cleaning devices now patrolling many supermarkets are likely to become a permanent fixture.

Industrial

Warehouses and factories typically operate on a shift-based schedule. This is a favorable starting point, given the situation at hand, and shifts are being further refined to ensure that only small numbers of people enter or depart a facility at the same time. The goal, of course, is limiting the potential for unhealthy grouping together of workers in close quarters.

In industrial facilities — and, to varying degrees, this also will be true for corporate and commercial environments — rigorous cleaning and sanitizing are more crucial than ever before. It’s always been important to remove germs, particularly from surfaces that are touched frequently, but now it’s absolutely essential.

Speaking more broadly, the pandemic-related development that fascinates me most is the impact four or more months spent watching employees work remotely has had on business owners. Some are so intrigued by the perceived cost-trimming opportunities presented by having their teams work from home that they’re seriously considering downsizing their total square footage. In contrast, others have found the virtual environment to be sufficiently ineffective that they’re anxious to get back into a physical office setting.

Because some companies will elect to reduce their overall footprint, quite a few corporate building owners will soon find themselves losing rental income. One solution will be to transform their properties into mixed-use structures that still feature office suites, but also offer residential, retail, and restaurant or entertainment options. This trend has been developing for several years now, and the pandemic and its aftermath will likely accelerate its evolution.

Both in New Jersey and across our country, we’ll be facing pandemic-related challenges for some time to come. The changes that have been or are being made to various types of structures and workplaces are primarily intended to decrease the probability of additional infections, though they can’t be entirely successful. Nothing’s ever that easy. Until there’s a vaccine, the pandemic will continue — and property managers and building owners will continue to assess, learn and adapt.

President Marcy Gross has been with Sheldon Gross Realty Inc. for three decades and, in that time, has managed more than 1 million square feet of commercial property throughout New Jersey, including retail, office, industrial and residential facilities.

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