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COVID-19 has affected how office space will be designed, says Houston expert

Here's how this work-from-home experiment has affected the office space — from a design perspective. Photo courtesy of Joe Aker

The last nine weeks have thrust businesses large and small into an experiment unlike anything we might have ever imagined. The impact has the potential to separate businesses that will stagnate versus those that will accelerate and thrive.

Our workplaces may become smaller as we realize we don't all need to be there at the same time, but they certainly won't go away. They will, instead, be more human-centered, more technologically robust, and more resilient for the next time. So, a warning too: If the office is unsafe, scary, or demeaning — if it doesn't put people first — employees will vote with their feet.

Office workers have been empowered with the sudden ability to choose where, when, and how to work. And, certainly there have been starts and stops and plenty of stories of less-than-ideal execution, but by and large, the experiment has opened our eyes: Work has not stopped, our people are trustworthy, and, in fact, we found out they have kids, dogs, pictures on the wall, bedrooms, and kitchens just like us.

So, perhaps counterintuitively, the office is more important than ever. As a place to provide a technology offering we don't enjoy at our kitchen table, as a place to better support small group work beyond the tiny real estate of our laptop screens, and as a place that physically represents what our organizations are truly all about. The role of the workplace has never been more critical to business success.

Here's how this work-from-home experiment has affected the office space — from a design perspective.

Planning and systems

The first impact on workplace design will be the approach to simple planning. Flexible, modular planning logic and building systems will have a distinct advantage for organizations as their physical needs evolve.

Institutionalizing 6-foot distancing requirements will create workplaces that are more resilient and ready for the next one — who among us now believes this is a one-time event? Individual workspaces and generous circulation paths are not just safer but help contribute to a sense that is truly a great place to work.

Nimble spaces that can change overnight from large to small or open to closed will be supported by flexible building systems, planning that prioritizes daylight and the outdoors for all, and mechanical systems that deliver clean, fresh air. Look to landlords and building owners in the race to advance the use of sophisticated filtering, fresh air, raised access floor and daylighting.

Solo seats

Workspaces will continue to be a combination of open and closed offices, but caution to those who believe this marks the end of the open office. Dimensions and planning arrangements will simply build in proper physical distancing. As cleaning protocols and standards become institutionalized, shared seating will accelerate the desire to reduce overall area requirements but create highly functional solo seats.

This acceleration to sharing will be characterized by high quality materials, lighting and ergonomics with a decided "BYO" ethos. Bring not only your laptop, but your keyboard, mouse, and pack of critical office supplies. Your personal cooler with your day's food and drink simply plugs in at your seat and leaves when you do.

And, you won't forget to wipe it down when you arrive and again on your departure.

Collaborative seats

Meetings and how they occur may go through the most significant physical change. One of the primary functions of the new workplace is to provide space that can support small group settings that simply cannot exist from the kitchen table. Meetings of two-to-six with proper social distancing, rich technological tools, and seamless accommodation for artificial intelligence, virtual reality and virtual participants will mean chairs and individual tables that are all easily movable. Look for less of a need for physical enclosure and more flexible settings. Big, old school meetings, training, and the meetings designed around a giant beautiful conference room will go virtual.

Your friend the landlord 

The first landlord that tags their building as "Certified Clean" will have the decided advantage and a new definition of Class A. Look for landlords to promote features and amenities that augment the tenant experience: Coworking spaces — visibly and constantly cleaned, food and drink offerings — manned, cleaned, and sanitized of course, and technologically-robust meeting settings will provide hubs for effective work as either additions to tenant spaces themselves or as free-standing neighborhood hubs. And look for these hubs to move out of CBDs to help transform Work from Home to truly Work from Anywhere. Think of an in-between spot between the binary choices of downtown or the kitchen table.

The requirement that the workplace must be a compelling human-centric place has never been more critical to business success. An organization's most valuable resource are the people who create the company's culture, live the purpose and drive its values. Those people are now empowered to work anywhere — the workplace is more important than ever to draw the most talented teams and drive business performance.

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Larry Lander is a principal at Houston-based architecture and planning firm PDR.

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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