The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the business community and the economy for the better part of this year, bringing with it changes that under normal conditions would have likely taken years. Having office workers quarantined for months has given birth to a dramatically expanded work-from-home movement, which in turn has breathed new life into online conferencing, video education and other virtual tasks.
One of the groups that will deal with many of these changes on a first-hand basis is the build community, including the producers of commercial flooring. For this reason, we sought out Tom Pendley, president of Mannington Commercial, to look into some of the potential long-term changes that will impact the design of future office spaces, as well as spaces in other commercial structures. The following are excerpts from a conversation with Pendley, which you can watch in its entirety here.
TF: Talk about COVID-19 and the commercial sector. What sectors have been affected the most and which the least?
Pendley: There has not been a sector in commercial that has escaped being impacted. The timing of the impact, however, was different across segments. The impact in hospitality was immediate, as was retail and the workplace. Healthcare had a burst of energy at the beginning as spaces were being prepared with acute care, but since it has been significantly impacted. Education had momentum—strong momentum heading into the into the peak season. Those projects continue, however, most of those projects have since been finished. New projects are now being impacted. Every segment of commercial has been impacted. Again, most of it was more timing-based as opposed to really segment-based. Retail has seen significant impact and no segment has been left out of the excitement.
TF: It seems like the pandemic, for the most part, has changed everything, and most employees just do not go to the office as much anymore. What do you see going forward as to how these office segment changes will remain long-term?
Pendley: I am in the office today here in Calhoun, our commercial corporate headquarters, and I am one of a handful of associates that is in the office. That has been the case for several months now. For us, specifically, that will continue to be the case, at least through the balance of 2020. Right now, we are not planning too far out into next year as we see how things evolve and change.
I do not think we are different than the workplace environment in general. I do think there will be significantly more people working from home coming on the backside of COVID. The genie is out of the bottle. I do not think there is any way to put it back in. I think that is our new reality. What will office space look like? I do think there is going to be less communal space. I believe there will be more space between desks. I do believe that the number of associates within a given building and given space will be impacted for years to come.
Our lifestyles have changed, the way we work has changed, and the capabilities and technology have enabled that, and everyone has adapted to it extremely quickly and I do not anticipate that reversing itself in the near future.
TF: Do you think we will travel less long-term?
Pendley: I am struggling with that one. I was traveling probably 40 percent of the time and I have not traveled since mid-March. I miss that interaction with customers. I miss being out with my sales teams. When our customers are comfortable with travel, and as an organization, we are more comfortable with travel, we will travel again. But, yes, I do think it has been impacted for the foreseeable future.
TF: A recent workplace design article called for a six-foot perimeter around every desk and extra-wide walkways to allow people to social distance. What’s your take?
Pendley: There has been a lot of discussion around that. Of course, like everything right now, there is a lot of movement in multiple directions. And where it settles is probably going to be a little bit closer to where we were prior to COVID than toward dramatic shifts. Speaking for our organization and our large open area office areas, we are extremely aware of separating desk and creating space. But remember, we have a large portion of folks that are working at home now and will continue to work at home. I have the space to be able to do that today without having to take on more real estate. I do know within our organization and within most organizations, there is going to be a movement to creating space. The unknown is the movement of people, the walkways, the hallways—those get a little more difficult to widen.
I am very confident what will be attacked is HVAC systems and airflow. I think the data is showing that it is critical to create more airflow within those spaces.
TF: In some of the other markets you mentioned—hospitality, education, retail, healthcare—do you see the same kind of more-space approach being observed?
Pendley: I do. Let’s go to healthcare and virtual visits. I don’t think that is changing any time soon. It’s one of the things that have been talked about for years and we have been forced to do it very quickly. Many doctors’ offices are now operating that way with no immediate intent to change that. For education, we know we’re going to have to have space. We want our kids in school buildings in a physical space.
Healthcare is also going to be impacted. The senior living market is stalled today, but we also know that there is nothing we can do to stem the tide of what is coming in senior living. I do think what we are living through today will impact the design of those spaces and what those spaces will look like.
TF: Does that imply that the makeup of the floor covering will perhaps have to change as well?
Pendley: The makeup of floor covering in all markets...is changing with the influx of LVT, and I don’t see that slowing. I am not sure that inherently is going to be impacted by COVID. That is going to be impacted by markets. The workplace being a large consumer of soft surface will be impacted as workplaces immediately are impacted. I believe carpet will continue to lose a little share.
TF: Talk about the prime trends in the commercial market before COVID.
Pendley: The big trend we’re seeing is bringing the outside in, how to create that communal environment. I am indoors but I have got a lot of open space, a lot of communal space, a lot of community gathering space. I think that will be impacted with fewer offices and more meeting rooms. I do think that that will be thought about, but I’m not exactly sure how that will be addressed. Obviously, that was being driven by comfort at work, being comfortable in your space. The team meetings and around-the-table discussions—I think will change a little bit. It’s going to be interesting to see how that communal space is used going forward.
Pendley: Yes. The Main Street side is definitely going to be attacking and going after that market. But I also think as they move out of urban and into suburban, I see a trend to satellite offices. I’m not in a city center, but I have a satellite office, much smaller on the north end of town and near the suburbs. Commutes are shorter, I think some reconfiguring of office space will occur.
TF: Millennials and others are moving out of the cities and heading for the suburbs, driven by higher taxes and rents, as well as the work-at-home environment. I suspect there is an interesting home office market for flooring organizations.