Traverse City News and Events

Back To Cubicles? Northern Michigan Offices Are Going To Look Different

By Craig Manning | May 27, 2020

Northern Michigan began reopening its economy this weekend, with many restaurants, bars, and retail stores redesigning their layouts or revamping their business models to offer safe customer service. So what does the “new normal” mean for commercial office spaces? We spoke to the largest local employers and corporate interior specialists to hear what the workplace of the future (or weeks from now) looks like. One hint? Cubicles might be back in vogue.

While local businesses are making plans to bring their teams back into the office, those strategies are still largely in their early stages. Last Monday, when Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced the executive order that reopened northern Michigan’s economy for Memorial Day weekend, she only allowed workers to go back into office settings “to the extent that such work is not capable of being performed remotely.” On Friday, Whitmer extended the state’s stay-at-home order to June 12.

Coco Champagne, COO for Hagerty, Traverse City’s largest private employer, says only about two-percent of the company’s employees are currently working in the office, handling mail fulfillment and key administrative functions; the other 98 percent are working remotely and likely won’t return to the office until July. Similarly, Britten -- which employs more than 250 staff members -- has had production workers on-site since it pivoted to making hospital gowns, but is just starting to revamp office workspaces for the return of those employees.

“We did a walkthrough [of the office] last week and found that a majority of our workstations are going to need to be modified in some way, or limited to make sure that people can maintain a six-foot physical distance,” says Dan Rinehart, quality manager for Britten. “We're working to figure out exactly how we're going to do that.”

Nikki Probst is the vice president of business relations for Custer, a Grand Rapids-based Steelcase dealer (with a Traverse City branch) that works with businesses to design and furnish workplace interiors. Probst says Custer has been playing a consulting role for many employers throughout Michigan as they seek to bring their teams back to work. Most companies, she’s found, aren’t quite sure where to start – in part because they aren’t thinking about all the different aspects of the equation.

“We look at three keywords: density, division and geometry,” Probst tells The Ticker. “Density is how many people you have in your office and how much space is dedicated to each person. Division is putting up physical barriers for a little while, until we get a better handle on how this contagion spreads. And geometry would be making changes in the space in order to spatially distance people more than six feet apart, as well as making sure that they aren’t facing each other.”

In the near-term, Probst predicts that these changes will send modern office layouts back in time a bit. “The office environment has changed a lot since the ‘60s, from the cubicle to the more open, more collaborative, more shared spaces we have today,” she says. “It’s kind of sad to think that we could go back to 72-inch-high panels [dividing workspaces]. But right now, the strategy is really about managing everyone’s comfort levels.”

Keely Trombly, branch manager for Interphase Interiors in Traverse City, agrees that more divided workspaces are in the cards, but thinks that most companies won’t be going all the way back to traditional cubicles. “We are seeing those partitions going back up, but it's being done in a manner that feels more open,” she explains. “Companies are using glass or acrylic dividers or screens, so that you can still have that visual line-of-sight factor.”

Rinehart says Britten will likely be manufacturing some dividers in-house to separate its own workspaces. That strategy, along with rearranging desks and strategically leaving certain seats or workspaces vacant, will form the crux of the company’s immediate office revamp. True to Probst’s comments about employee density, Rinehart notes that Britten will be strategic about bringing groups of employees back to avoid “overloading the office system.” To start, Britten will allow all parents to continue working from home for the foreseeable future, given the challenge of finding childcare options during the pandemic. The company plans to start bringing other employees back to the office in June but will do so in stages, assessing layout and capacity factors at each juncture.

Minimizing employee density is also a top priority for Hagerty – a change that Champagne says could fundamentally reshape what the company looks like in the future. Hagerty has grown substantially over the past few years, adding office space both locally and elsewhere to keep up with the expanding teams. But Champagne finds that most Hagerty employees have “been performing very, very well” under the new remote parameters, to the point where the company is now considering a semi-permanent shift in its approach to staffing and space.

“We get our office furniture from Herman Miller and they’ve been helping us evaluate the maximum capacity for our locations based on square footage,” Champagne says. “As a rule of thumb for all our locations, it ends up being about 50 percent of the capacity that we used to have. Based on our recent growth, we anticipate continuing to hire upwards of 150-200 people a year for 2021 and 2022. By embracing the idea of working remotely, it not only gives us access to talent that can be based out of anywhere, but it also means that we don't have to have the same amount of square footage. Even with implementing changes in density for our offices, I anticipate we'd continue with the space that we currently have. I don’t see us expanding much more from a square footage perspective in the future.”

Photo courtesy of Custer

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