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July 24, 2023 Focus: Workplace

What do employers want to know about office space design? ‘How do we get more people back to work’

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Tony Amenta, co-founder and managing principal of Amenta Emma Architects (shown left, holding his glasses), discusses an office space design with staff.
Tony Amenta 
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One of the more common questions Tony Amenta receives from existing and prospective clients these days is top-of-mind for many employers.

Tony Amenta

“It is along the lines of ‘how do we get more people in the office?’” said Amenta, co-founder and managing principal of Hartford-based Amenta Emma Architects. “They’re also asking, ‘what do we do when our lease is up? Should we move? Should we renovate in place?’”

Of course, there are no easy answers to those queries. Many employers have struggled to find the magic formula that gets their workers back to the office on a consistent basis.

Office design — something Amenta Emma specializes in — can certainly play a role in enticing people back to work, but it’s not a panacea, Amenta admits.

“I think that employers seem to understand that it’s not all about the space,” he said. “I wish it were, for architects sake, but technology plays a role, flexibility is huge, accommodating employees’ needs is important. Maybe it’s just a battle for which days to be in the office. Employers are spending a lot more energy and time on these things.”

Amenta is a proponent of having employees return to the office, and he’s hopeful more downtown Hartford workers will come back to work to bring more life to the city.

His firm has a three-day, in-office policy. About 35 employees are required to be in Amenta Emma’s 8,000-square-foot downtown Hartford office at 242 Trumbull St., on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

About two years ago, Amenta believed most employers would return to a five-day-a-week, in-office policy. Now, he’s not so sure about that.

Technology has made it easier to distance work, and also created some efficiencies, like reducing the number of long commutes for client meetings.

Sometimes, a simple Zoom videoconference suffices, he said.

“Having said that, it’s still better to be all in the same place with a team if you could do it,” he said. “That need of having somebody next to you cannot be replaced 100%.”

Meantime, the pandemic didn’t change Amenta Emma’s office design, because the firm had already adopted many of the features employers are embracing today: open office aesthetics, socially distanced desks, and collaborative spaces.

Cubicle farms, he said, are a thing of the past.

“We have a great office and I’d love to stay here,” Amenta said, noting he does have one major renovation in mind.

He’d like to convert the firm’s large underused conference room into a flexible, multi-use workspace area, with different kinds of seating that gives people the opportunity to work privately, or in smaller groups.

However, he said he’s held off on the renovation given the uncertainty about his building’s future. Hartford’s largest landlord, Shelbourne Global Solutions, recently purchased 242 Trumbull St., a 324,000-square-foot mixed-use office/retail complex, for $4.75 million, with plans to convert part of the building to apartments.

Amenta Emma has the option to renew its second-floor lease, with views of the XL Center across the street, in 2025. It may shrink its footprint by 15%, Amenta said.

Amenta Emma recently designed Hartford Steam Boiler’s eighth-floor renovation, which included an open concept with collaboration spaces and a kitchen.

The pandemic also had an impact on the firm’s business. Work on office space design is down, so Amenta Emma’s six-person workplace group has shifted some of its focus to supporting multifamily housing and higher-education projects — its two largest industry sectors.

For example, the firm is working on plans for New Jersey-based the Michaels Organization, which has proposed a $100 million, ground-up apartment development on a 2.8-acre parking lot south of Hartford’s Bushnell Park.

“We’re very busy,” Amenta said, thanks to the firm’s diversified client base that also includes public works and senior-living projects. “I was surprised by that, because I kind of thought that we’d see a little bit of a slowdown, but we’re still trying to hire.”

In addition to its Hartford office, Amenta Emma, which generates about $10 million in annual revenues, has a presence in Boston and New York.

Amenta recently sat down for a virtual interview with the Hartford Business Journal to discuss office space and other workplace trends.

Here’s what he had to say. The Q&A was edited for clarity and length.

What are you seeing with the latest office space trends?

A. It depends on the industry sector.

For example, at traditional law firms, we’re not seeing much of a change at all in terms of physical layouts. They may have a different work schedule, and they may be shrinking space, but each partner gets an office and each associate gets an office.

With other types of clients, we’re seeing some of the trends that started pre-pandemic accelerating. Companies are increasingly receptive to the open, flexible office concept, with huddle rooms, Zoom-type rooms. Since the pandemic, we’ve seen a greater desire to have outdoor space.

Employers are trying to create an atmosphere that is better than what you would get at home. So, better technology, electric charging stations are more important. On-site gyms are a big deal, and even relaxation spaces.

Employers are also trying to create a residential feel in terms of the furniture colors and finishes that are used to create more of a feeling that you’re in a hotel lobby rather than an office.

As companies downsize space, are they spending more money on office design and fit outs?

A. I think it’s easier to argue for some of these office space amenities and upgrades than it has been in the past, but these decisions are still budget-driven. The numbers still have to work, so there’s a lot of trade-off type of discussions going on.

‘Is x more expensive than y, can we do a and b and maybe not do C?’

Employers have a better understanding of what should go into a modern office space, but they also want to know which options are more cost-effective.

How has inflation impacted office design budgets?

A. There’s still a sticker shock with even the most basic renovation costs. And there’s not a great desire to overcome that by pushing more money into the deal.

I think costs are starting to moderate a little bit, and I think that’s going to continue.

You mentioned outdoor spaces as a more popular amenity. Can you elaborate on that?

A. We are in the process of moving (law firm) Day Pitney, and a space they ended up in at Goodwin Square (in downtown Hartford at 225 Asylum St.) has two outdoor terraces, and I think that was one of the factors that pushed them toward taking that space as opposed to some of the other downtown locations they were looking at.

It just adds another dimension for a tenant. The outdoor spaces typically have Wi-Fi, so you can go out there to work or hold a meeting when the weather is nice.

In terms of technology, what are the biggest differences you’re seeing with those requirements? What’s a Zoom room?

A. Zoom rooms have become fairly sophisticated, if you want to do it right. They have voice-activated cameras so that the camera points to whoever is speaking, so you don’t have to look at a screen the whole time.

Sometimes there will be multiple screens in the room so that when you’re looking at meeting participants, you have a better or realistic feel. It usually has better audio, better microphone placement. You get the opportunity to hear people more clearly.

In terms of individual workstations, it’s pretty hard to match the technology you can have in the office, things like large screens or dual screens, really comfortable ergonomic seating, sit and stand desks.

Those things are pretty easy to accommodate in an office setting, and more expensive and difficult to do at home for a lot of people.

We’re also equipping all of our employees with laptops to better accommodate the work-from-anywhere scenario. I think more firms are starting to think about adopting technology that is independent of location.

Your firm is involved in multifamily apartment developments. What are your thoughts on office-to-apartment space conversions? What are the opportunities and challenges?

A. Word on the street is nobody can make the numbers work on office-to-apartment space conversions.

I look around Hartford, and the buildings that may be suffering, some of the Class A buildings that have some of the older floor plates, they’re not ripe at all for this conversion.

Even at these low cost of sales, conversion is a very expensive way to go. We’d like to see it in some of these buildings, but anything built after 1960, or maybe even before that, has these big floor plates that are very inefficient to convert, so I don’t see too much of it being feasible.

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