How COVID-19 is changing the future of Cleveland’s office space in a remote working world

For Victor Smith, working from home has come with tangible benefits.

Smith no longer has an hour commute between his Lorain home and his job at the Progressive Insurance call center. He’s traded his cubicle for a home office and his takeout lunches for home-cooked meals.

“It’s been good for my budget as well,” he says. “I spend a lot less on gas.”

But remote work has also highlighted what Smith liked most about going into an office. He misses the face-to-face time with his coworkers and the chance to commiserate over lunch breaks.

Now, Smith fields customer calls with a company-provided monitor and headset, working overnight from a spare bedroom while the rest of the family sleeps.

“At this point, I guess I wish I had the option to split my time between home and the office,” he admits. “But we’re not sure when we’re going back. First, they said fall 2020. Now, it’s no earlier than April 2021.”

With his return-to-office date shifting ever-later, Smith is wondering if remote work will be the new normal.

Evidence suggests that for some American workers, it will be. 

Global WorkPlace Analytics estimates that by the end of 2021 25% to 30% of the American workforce will be working from home, at least for part of the work week (compared to only 4% before the pandemic).

In downtown Cleveland, a report from commercial real estate advisors Newmark Knight Frank indicates that only 20% of office workers are still commuting into the workplace every day. The rest are either working from home entirely or part of the time.

This could spell trouble for downtown landlords in the future if companies decide that the cost of expensive real estate outweighs its benefits.

So far there hasn’t been a mass exodus from downtown Cleveland office real estate. Vacancy rates for Cleveland office leases rose only slightly during the past quarter—from 16.1% to 16.2%. However, in its third quarter Cleveland Office Report, Newmark warns that rate will continue to rise in coming year.

“Fortunately, office leases are most often multi-year commitments…so the immediate impact was softened,” the report states. “There will likely be a ‘slow drip’ for many quarters to come…[but] the long-term infusion of remote work into daily business and its lasting impact remains a wildcard.”

Community amid COVID-19: The Coworking space

And while remote work (in some form) may be here to stay, workers still feel the need for community, connection, and a work-life balance.

Enter the co-working space.

Coworking spaces allow individuals to buy monthly or daily passes to access common spaces or private offices on their own schedules.

Before the pandemic, this allowed entrepreneurs, freelancers, and remote workers to find a work community outside of their homes while not signing long-term office leases.

Now, some workers whose companies have moved to remote offices are looking to coworking spaces as temporary options.

Julianne Roseman, for instance, started buying daily passes to the coworking venue Limelight in Ohio City to remain productive after her company sent her home indefinitely.

“I didn’t realize how hard it was to work from home until I was working remotely for months,” says Roseman. “The coworking space just gives me a place that I know will be consistently quiet, have Internet access, and where I can be more productive.”

Other Cleveland coworking spaces also have seen an uptick in membership since the pandemic started.

LaunchHouse in Highland Heights for instance, has grown from 108 members at the beginning of 2020, to 161 members currently. LaunchHouse’s director of operations Maddy Mooney attributes the jump to the fact that the space offers multiple membership levels—from simply renting a mailbox, to working in a common area, to renting a private office—offering the benefits of going into an office.

LaunchHouse founder Todd Goldstein also points to the role of a community feel in maintaining a consistent membership. Since its founding in 2008, the coworking center has provided entrepreneurs with a space to work, find mentors, and participate in communal activities such as regular “Lunch and Learn” events.

And while in-person community happenings have moved to virtual events since the pandemic began, members say they still share from the comradery and structure that the space provides.

“For me, LaunchHouse was really important because when I started, I had almost nothing,” says Haowen Ge, director of ISSA and founder of the Haowen Cultural Foundation. Through the LaunchHouse community, he was able to find mentors, board members, and a community that he’s remained in contact with throughout the pandemic.

The coworking space also gives Ge a controlled office area where he can meet with employees on flexible, rotating schedules while also social distancing.

Midtown Tech Hive, another coworking space based in downtown Cleveland, has also held steady membership throughout the pandemic.

“We’re certainly less busy and holding less events than we did last year,” says Anna Buchholz, director of community and place. “And while we lost a lot of people off our wait list, we didn’t lose many members.”

Buchholz attributes this move partially to the fact that the space offers month-to-month memberships, so its lower risk than signing a long-term office lease. The bigger factor, though, is the community spirit that the space has fostered.

“The Tech Hive is part of a nonprofit, DigitalC, and so we tend to attract other nonprofits,” says Buchholz. “There are a lot of cool synergies that happen in the space. You often bump into like-minded people here who you were meaning to meet anyway. [The coworking space] gives you the chance to meet and learn from one another.”

Re-designing the Office

It’s this need for face-to-face contact and collaboration that has Mike Fant, an architect at Aodk Architecture in Lakewood, hopeful about the future.

Fant says believes that the in-person office will simply be re-imagined—not eliminated—as companies think about ways to reunite their teams. Fant says that while new contracts for workplace designs slowed in the middle of the pandemic, they’ve since picked up again for his company.

“Over the summer, we saw people looking at what the new workplace might look like,” says Fant. “With remote work, there’s only certain things you can do. People miss that human interaction.”

Fant adds that the new office environment will consider the social impact of in-office setups. “Companies are realizing that health and wellness is not just your physical well-being, there’s the mental side as well,” he explains. “We need to be able to interact with each other to grow, innovate, and mentor.”

He says that the coronavirus was a wake-up call for companies, and that every client is now looking to design healthier spaces. This includes moving away from some of the more popular design trends of recent years.

Over the past decade, many companies tore down the cubicle walls in exchange for more open layouts. Many incorporated “benching systems” in which workers were packed onto long tables across from one another.

<span class="content-image-text">Launchhouse provides entrepreneurs with space, community, and networking opportunities to help launch their business ideas.</span>Launchhouse provides entrepreneurs with space, community, and networking opportunities to help launch their business ideas.These layouts were marketed as a way to reduce worker isolation and promote collaboration. At the same time, the trend helped reduce companies’ overhead costs by cramming more people into smaller spaces.

Now, executives are looking to strike a balance between efficient space use and worker wellness.

“Companies are asking how to create a sense of separation, even if each worker doesn’t have their own private office,’ says Fant. “They want breathing room and elbow room.”

He says that at Aodk, they use planters as dividers.

“The planters allow us to introduce greenery and interaction with nature,” explains Fant. “It also gives you some elbow room and lets you feel separated from people while still being able to see them.”

Companies might also look to other design elements—such as glass doors, moveable barriers, and flexible dividers—to help make spaces partitionable and flexible.

“If you want efficient space use, you can’t just have rooms that are dedicated for one purpose,” Fant says. “You might need a large open-air space for a big meeting, then want to close it off for a smaller interview…so flexible conference rooms and dividers are a great idea.”

Finally, Fant says companies are also incorporating technology to slow the spread of illness. New hardware—such as doors that you can open by push pedals or infrared technology—will reduce the risk of spreading disease through touch surfaces.

He says he believes that more elbow room, flexible spaces, and lower touch surfaces are great ideas—whether there is a pandemic or not—and will help strike the balance between the need for private space with the desire to interact and collaborate with colleagues.

This is the third story in a three-part series on how COVID-19 will affect the way Cleveland worships, the city’s travel and tourism market, and working remotely and the commercial office space market. It is made possible with funding from Google's Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

About the Author: Sydney Kornegay

Sydney Kornegay is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Aidemocracy, The Columbia Star, and Observatario Economico. She has a master's degree in International Development and Economics from Fordham University and is the director of adult programming at Refugee Response in Cleveland.