Far from irrelevant, today's workplace has evolved to support and foster precisely the behaviors and interactions that are missing in remote work. Photo via Getty Images

Since the advent of the modern office over a century ago, its design has continually evolved, adapting to new needs driven by changes in the ways people work.

COVID-19 introduced massive disruption to this steady evolution, displacing millions of office workers to fulfill their job roles from their homes. The question everyone is asking now is what happens after the pandemic — if we can all work from home, is the office irrelevant?

A mass remote work experiment

While many companies had tried some degree of remote work before the pandemic, the mass relocation to home during COVID was new territory for most. And the experiment has offered up something of an epiphany: work-from-home worked. People were able to carry out their job responsibilities, saving thousands of companies from having to shut down and sparing millions of people from job loss.

Now, based on the perceived success of WFH, many organizations are planning to greatly expand remote work, even after the pandemic has passed. Twitter was at the front of the pack in announcing they would allow some employees to work from home forever, and the list has continued to grow well beyond the tech sector.

Success depends on criteria

The lens through which we view this work-from-home period is important. Looked at as an emergency response, WFH can be deemed successful: it helped to flatten the transmission curve of the virus and protected employee lives.

But as we enter one of the most complex and challenging business climates in a century, survival will be about being competitive. And that fundamentally changes the criteria to judge working from home during COVID-19 and whether it should be expanded as a post-pandemic strategy. It raises the bar from "did work-from-home work?" to "did it work better?"; will increasing remote work help to deliver competitive advantage better than having people together in the workplace? That requires a deeper exploration.

Digital breadcrumbs

Work-from-home during COVID is, at heart, a technology story — from the platforms that virtually connected employees to networks and each other, to the embrace of video conferencing and the overnight ubiquity of the Zoom call. While they all existed before COVID, the pandemic acted as a catalyst for their widespread adoption.

Technology use leaves trails of data, like digital breadcrumbs, and many of the collaborative platforms and software providers are generously sharing their data comparing use patterns before and during COVID. So while not too long ago our evaluative methods for this unprecedented period of remote work would have relied largely on subjective or anecdotal measures, today we're able to follow the breadcrumbs and arrive at a more objective understanding of how work changed in this shift from office to home.

What becomes abundantly clear is that it wasn't simply a location swap; we didn't just go about our jobs in the same way at home as we did in the office. There were fundamental and very impactful shifts in the way we worked, with significant implications for business performance.

For instance:

The number of meetings increased. While there is a wide range of percentage increases being reported, even just taking a more conservative estimate, from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the number of meetings went up by 13 percent as compared to pre-COVID patterns.

Meetings turned inward. Since people weren't together physically, they needed to check-in a lot more often. Internal meetings—those with people within the same company — increased to over 60 percent of overall weekly meetings during work-from-home, while meetings with people external to the organization decreased to just below 40 percent, according to analysis by a leading meeting software platform.

Meeting purpose changed. Meetings can largely be grouped into three categories: evaluative — considering options, making decisions; generative — brainstorming, creating new ideas; or organizational — coordinating tasks, reporting. Organizational meetings increased by nearly a third during the peak COVID lockdown.Put another way, during WFH, people had more meetings to talk about doing work and fewer meetings to actually do work.

Meetings got larger. The number of meeting attendees during WFH increased by 14 percent. When people are physically together in the office, more meetings are impromptu, typically involving two to four people. But when you plan meetings in advance, which people have to do when remote, there's a tendency to invite more people. Increasing participants changes meeting dynamics — the more people, the more formal, the more likely it's one-way communication.

Emails to coworkers increased. With the loss of a centralized office and face-to-face interactions, people increased both the number of internal emails they sent by 5.2 percent, as well as the number of people they included in emails by 2.9 percent.

Employees felt less informed. A smartsheet survey showed that despite the increase in virtual meetings and email communication, 60 percent of the workforce reported having a decreased sense of what's going on within their companies, revealing the isolating effect of remote work.

Productive time decreased. With the increase in number of meetings, large swaths of productive time were harder to come by. Calendar analysis revealed that fragmented time—short periods of unscheduled time between meetings—increased by 11 percent during COVID-19.While not ideal for anyone, fragmented time is especially problematic for non-managerial staff, whose job roles tend to entail more individual focus work; it only takes a few poorly spread out meetings to render a day largely unproductive. The result? The work day increased by as much as 3 hours at the height of WFH per Bloomberg report.

Video was a boon…and then quickly a bane. Video conference platforms saw exponential increase in use during COVID, and seemed at first to offer a close substitute for face-to-face meetings. But the way video is synthesized introduces distortions and lags, and even an undetectable misalignment of video and audio confuses the brain, making it work harder, as outlined in the New York Times.People found themselves exhausted after a day of video calls and the scientifically-verified phenomenon "Zoom Fatigue" was born.

Social capital decreased. Socializing has never been something people regularly schedule into their workday; it's very much an ad hoc work mode: a conversation on the elevator or chatting before and after meetings. Those types of unplanned interactions weren't possible working-from-home, and despite admirable attempts to interact virtually, 63 percent of workers reported spending less time socializing with colleagues, and already by April, 75 percent of people reported feeling less connected to coworkers.

Companies became more siloed. According to research by Ben Waber at Humanyze, during WFH we increased communication with our closest work colleagues — team members or close friends at work — by 33 percent. Communication with coworkers outside our inner circle, so-called "weak ties", dropped by nearly the same amount. The problem with that is interactions with weak ties are one of the most effective ways new ideas spread through an organization. When we talk to people we have don't know well or don't see often, it's just much more likely something new is shared.

Innovation is at risk

Taken individually, the changes to work patterns that occurred with WFH might not seem dire — work got done, if not ideally so. But layered on top of each other, the picture is more grim; we had more meetings and our days got more fragmented; we met less with people outside our company; internally, we met less to generate new ideas and more to just coordinate and organize tasks; we became more siloed, we socialized less and felt less connected to each other, and less aware of what was happening within our companies.

What that combination puts most at risk is innovation, arguably the thing companies are going to need most to face the challenges ahead. Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford and internationally recognized scholar on innovation, posits that while we were able to remain productive working-from-home, there may be a steep opportunity cost paid down the line: "I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation. The new ideas we are losing today could show up as fewer new products in 2021 and beyond, lowering long-run growth."

The workplace advantage

The ways work changed when we tried to do it from home reaffirms why the workplace is even more relevant now, at a time when organizations are going to need to be firing on all cylinders. And it shows that we haven't just been working at the office to bide our time until technology allowed us to ditch it and work from home; we work at the office because doing so delivers higher performance.

Far from irrelevant, today's workplace has evolved to support and foster precisely the behaviors and interactions that are missing in remote work: bringing people together to work side-by-side, to be immersed in the culture of the organization, to socialize, to build trust, and to learn from each other.

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Erik Lucken is strategy director at San Francisco-based IA Interior Architects, which has projects and clients based in Houston.

Gensler is using a new software program to help optimize social distancing in the workplace for Houston companies returning to the office. Photo courtesy of Gensler

New technology is helping Houston companies reimagine a socially distant workspace

feng shui

The COVID-19 pandemic has displaced many Houstonians from their office jobs to makeshift work-from-home setups. With coronavirus cases climbing in Houston, the obstacle of returning to work safely is undoubtedly on the minds of business owners across the city.

Thankfully, there's an algorithm for that. Gensler, a global architecture firm, has unveiled its ReRun program as a pandemic response tool to help offices create workspace layouts for safe social distancing.

ReRun allows Gensler to upload a floorplan into the program, which applies generative algorithms to determine safe separation between workplaces by creating circles ranging from six to eight-foot diameters. The tool can quickly generate scenarios and identify the most optimized capacity to meet social distancing demands, easing the role of operations and human resources.

"It's really just a tip of the spear in terms of occupancy planning, because once you know that information, then the next question is what do I do with that?" says Dean Strombom, strategy lead and principal at Gensler's Houston office.

"ReRun is the first tool we utilize to help [clients] determine how many people might be able to come back and still achieve the social distancing side. Then we work with them on how they should come back, whether it's a percentage of employees, staggered shift work or alternating days," Strombom says. Circulation patterns are also taken into account by the Gensler team, who analyze the traffic of hallways, meeting spaces and lounge areas.

Dean Strombom is the strategy lead and principal at Gensler's Houston office. Photo courtesy of Gensler

The international firm, with 50 offices around the world, has rolled out the ReRun tool to its database of clientele. The platform is also available to businesses outside of the firm's existing portfolio, who can use the tool by providing a simple CAD design of their workplace. ReRun is applied through the company's SaaS space management software, Wisp. Using occupancy planning, Wisp provides clients with color-coded floor plans to help visualize and communicate to their teams which seats are available or assigned for occupancy as employees phase back into the office.

The response has been positive among clientele. Strombom is currently applying Gensler's social distancing tool with a large financial services company with locations throughout the Houston area.

"We are loading the information from ReRun into the Wisp program, and then we'll be helping them determine how they will return to work, and specifically where people will sit," he shares. The company plans to come back with 20 percent of the workforce, increasing overtime with the help of Gensler's team. "Who comes back when and specifically where is what they're most excited about."

The company has determined four work modes employees exhibit: focus, collaboration, socialization, and learning. By categorizing the work modes, Gensler is looking ahead at how interior architecture can accommodate these phases.

"More recently, we've been talking about a need for regenerative spaces so that people can become more engaged in the workplace," says Strombom.

As described in a Gensler blog, isolation rooms were optioned as a way to contain an employee who begins to feel symptomatic but these rooms can also serve a different purpose for employees acclimating to a new normal.

"The isolation room is what we often call a wellness room in an office where people can get away from the general tensions that they may be feeling in a workplace where they can relax and reinvigorate themselves in a quiet space," says Strombom.

As the architecture industry adjusts to a post-pandemic world, Gensler is working with developer clients and building owners to share the near-term and long-term changes the company foresees. Strombom says clients have flexibility as a priority.

ReRun allows Gensler to upload a floorplan into the program, which applies generative algorithms to determine safe separation between workplaces by creating circles ranging from six to eight-foot diameters. Graphic courtesy of Gensler

"We have to think about the entire path or the entire entry sequence in office buildings that is true for residential as well. From the moment that you pull into the garage, what are all of those points along the way where you've got to be concerned about contact and cleanliness?" Strombom shares.

Strombom foresees new building systems coming to the forefront, for example air conditioners with a focus on keeping clean air circulation within the office building. He also predicts a need for flexible spaces that can change depending on the circumstances.

"You hear a lot about temperature readings and separations of people within building lobbies during pandemics. We need systems in place that you can rapidly deploy when something like this happens, but the majority of the time it can revert to a more normal circumstance," he says.

Tight spaces also require a new way of thinking.

"We've realized that the elevator cab is really one of the pinch points in office buildings if you're trying to maintain this social distancing," Strombom shares. "There's technology [out there] that can identify how many people are going to be entering a cab and restrict that occupancy. So that is something that's going to need to be done for the near term."

In a Gensler survey of its Houston office, 72 percent of respondents expect a maintained or increased level of virtual collaboration compared to these pre-COVID levels.

"As people have been semi-forced to work at home, they've realized that not only is it possible, but for some people it's the preferred way to work," says Strombom, who predicts virtual meetings will continue on.

While platforms like Zoom and Skype make meetings tenable, company employees are still anticipating a future in the office.

"Those of us that are now working from home, if you ask people the majority of respondents to the question of what they miss most, it's really the people," Strombom says.

From common space to desks and offices, ReRun can help enable social distancing in the workplace. Photo courtesy of Gensler

More and more Houston companies are having employees return to the office, but business leaders should take advantage of new tools and best practices. Getty Images

Expert shares advice and tools for Houston companies returning to their office space

Guest column

As states begin to relax their stay-at-home orders and communities plan for the reopening of local economies, many may be returning to work and engaging in more regular social activity. While the return to some semblance of normalcy may come as a relief, questions about one's own health or the health of family members may remain.

Upon returning to work, people should continue to be smart and cautious while interacting with others. Following CDC guidelines and maintaining social distancing, practicing good hand hygiene and frequently sanitizing common areas or high-contact items, including doorknobs, hand railings and communal phones and printers, can be good preventive measures to help mitigate COVID-19 health risks.

Business associations, health systems, and governments are crafting guidelines to help mitigate risks associated with reopening communities, but additional resources may be available to help individuals navigate their own physical and mental health during this transition period.

Many may continue to have questions related to potential COVID-19 symptoms. To help, UnitedHealthcare provides an online COVID-19 symptom self-checker to help people gauge their symptoms and consider what may be the next steps for care. The symptom self-checker is at no additional cost for people to access, and users of the self-checker tool will be asked to answer a series of questions to generate feedback on care options to consider, which then assigns assessment levels ranging from self-isolation to emergency care, depending on the severity and urgency of the symptoms recorded. A testing site locator feature provides updated information on nearby COVID-19 testing sites if recommended by a physician.

Some people may still need to see a doctor but may worry about the potential risk of exposure (or the risk of exposing others) with in-person visits to a physician's office or urgent care center. As an alternative starting point for care, some people may continue to consider telehealth, which enables people to connect 24/7 with a health care provider via a smart phone, tablet or desktop computer. Telehealth may be especially helpful as an initial option for medical advice related to COVID-19, and to help evaluate other possible health issues, such as allergies, pink eye or the flu.

Employers also have a tool available for their employees. ProtectWell, a new smartphone app just launched by Microsoft and UnitedHealth Group, screens employees for COVID-19. Employees found to be at-risk for COVID-19 are directed to get a test and the app notifies employers of the results. The ProtectWell app is offered to all employers in the United States at no charge.

Access to mental health resources may also continue to be an important tool for people to have as they head back to work. Being at home and perhaps feeling isolated over the last few months may have had an impact on one's mental health, and the loneliness people may be experiencing, as well as possible stress or anxiety brought on by the pandemic, should be considered alongside physical health.

Virtual mental health resources are available for those experiencing increased stress and anxiety. A free emotional support line (866-342-6892) is available 24/7 to the public courtesy of Optum, which is part of UnitedHealth Group. Staffed by mental health professionals, individuals may receive help without taking any unnecessary trips.

Available at no additional cost, mental health and wellness apps, like Sanvello, may also be great resources for coping with the ongoing stress and anxiety. Equipped with self-care tools, peer support groups, coaching and therapy, Sanvello offers a number of avenues to receive the help and support one may need as they return to work.

For people who used mental health services before COVID-19, some care providers offer long-distance counseling and other resources, enabling for continued care from the comfort of home. Check with your providers regarding options on what may work best for you.

Taking care of physical and mental health needs may be imperative in the coming weeks and months as communities strive to reopen and individuals resume more familiar living routines. Using online and telehealth services may play a role in facilitating a smoother and healthier transition.

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Dr. Sarah-Anne Schumann is the chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare of Oklahoma and North Texas.

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

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

guest column

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.

SquareFoot — a real estate tech company with Houston roots — is entering the Houston market. Getty Images

Real estate tech company founded by Houstonian launches locally, looks for office space

Homecoming

A New York-based company that uses technology to optimize the commercial real estate leasing process is expanding into Houston — and it's a bit of a homecoming for the company's CEO.

SquareFoot, which was founded by Houston native Jonathan Wasserstrum in 2011, has launched in Houston following the closing of a $16 million series B funding round led by Chicago-based DRW VC. The company uses tech tools — like a space calculator and online listings to help users find the right office space quicker and easier than traditional methods.

The Bayou City's growth in small businesses and startups makes for a great market for SquareFoot.

"Houston, in addition to being a leading market for business, is a city in transition," Wasserstrum says. "We've witnessed a growing trend of smaller companies cropping up, with startups showing that they're here to stay. I want SquareFoot to be a major part of the city's growth and evolution."

The idea for a company, Wasserstrum says, came from a friend in Houston who was struggling to find office space for his small company. Years later, that problem's solution would be SquareFoot.

SquareFoot's Houston operations are up and running online, and the listings and resources will continue to grow. Wasserstrum says the team will also open a physical office in Houston, and the team is currently looking for its own office space in a "highly-desirable" area, Wasserstrum says.

"That will not only make it easier for us to show office spaces to prospective clients, but it also sends the message that we understand these clients better than anyone," he explains. "Where you choose to open your offices is part of the story you're shaping for candidates and clients."

In regards to Houston-based employees, Wasserstrum says he will start with tapping a few Houston real estate experts. He will take the business model that was successful in New York and adapt it for Houston

"It's not only the East and West Coasts where innovation is taking place," Wasserstrum says. "We want to help Houston continue to grow as a stellar place to launch and grow a company."

National expansion is Wasserstrum's big goal, he says, and after settling in Houston, he plans to next enter into Washington, D.C., and a few other major markets.

Wasserstrum explains what the Houston expansion means to him, how tech is changing real estate, and trends he's keeping an eye on.

IM: What does it mean to be expanding in your hometown?

Jonathan Wasserstrum: Houston is where I grew up. My whole life has been shaped by what I saw and learned in Houston. I moved away for college, and have built my career on the East Coast, but Houston will always be a big part of me. My parents still live there so I have good reasons to fly home and to come home again.

As I've built out my company, SquareFoot, since 2012 at our NYC headquarters, I have dreamed of being able to expand our services nationally. We have helped over 1,200 companies find and secure office spaces in major cities. As our executive team considered where to invest in and to expand to next, Houston emerged at the top of the list. We made this decision for professional growth reasons, but that choice has an emotional element for me as well.

Going forward, I should have additional good reasons to fly home and to see my parents more often than I have had the occasion to over recent years. Plus, we save on hotel costs!

IM: What makes Houston a great place to expand into?

JW: From an office space perspective, Houston is an under tapped market. There are countless companies looking for the services we provide, but nobody has yet figured out how to build a company to serve them specifically.

We acquire many of our clients through online search — people looking for office space are literally searching online for solutions. We've seen in recent months and years a surge in searches from Houston, which indicated to us that there was a gap that had developed there. We've long had a digital presence there, thanks to these searches, but now we're increasing our physical presence on the ground. We'll hire a broker and put an office there in the coming months.

IM: What sort of trends are you seeing in office real estate? Are these trends happening in Houston already?

JW: Over the past years, we've seen a sharp increase in demand for flexible solutions. Traditional coworking spaces have worked out for many companies, but it's not for everyone.

At the same time, the long-term leases that are usually required upon signing on for an office space of your own has largely kept growing companies out of the market; it has scared them off. We realized there had to be a middle option so we launched FLEX by SquareFoot last year. Now, for the first time, all companies can find the spaces they want with the terms they want.

We are excited to introduce FLEX to the Houston market and to show companies there that there's more lease flexibility and opportunity available than they might think. Change in commercial real estate happens slowly over a long period of time. Houston has the chance now to be a part of their changing wave.

IM: How is technology changing the industry?

JW: For many decades, commercial real estate operated the exact same way. And it intended to stay that way because nobody had reason to believe anything was broken or wrong. However, there were several inefficiencies that clients just had to deal with because that was the industry standard.

The first one was the lack of transparency of which office spaces were unoccupied or what they'd cost. Brokers would lock up this information and keep clients at a distance, unless they were willing to sign on to work with them. With SquareFoot's online listings platform, we have unlocked that information, have educated countless people, and have made for a more seamless and enjoyable process for our clients as partners in their searches.

The other technological breakthrough we've made is in our mobile app. Still, in 2020, too many clients are taking tours of these offices with pen and paper and occasionally snapping a photo or video to send back to their stakeholders. Our app solved those issues once and for all, enabling better communication back and forth and a better user experience for all. Regardless of which team member goes on the office tour with our broker, everyone is clued in and on the same page.

We want everyone on the greater team to buy into the vision, and to recognize the potential, not just one representative who happened to be on the office tour one afternoon.

Finding a new, larger office space is part of the startup growth process. Getty Images

When is it time to move? How Houston's small companies can find their next office space

Move it or lose it

There are a number of ways to measure the stage of growth a company is enjoying: funding, headcount, acquisitions, exit strategy, and more. But one telling indicator that often goes overlooked is the office space they call home.

In the early days of a startup, working out of someone's garage or at a nearby coffee shop, you dream of moving into a coworking space. Such a transition can mean a financial squeeze for some, especially when your prior solution was free. But paying for a space can mark a milestone — it signifies that you've made it to the next chapter. Houston has a number of great options for the many local early-stage startups undertaking this type of move.

Over time, though, as your company continues to grow, this solution may begin to cause strain. There's a big difference between a team of six sharing a room in a WeWork, and a team that's reached double-digits having to manage within a space that it has outgrown. Even external amenities like meeting rooms can become insufficient — as your team evolves, more meetings will be necessary, and the standards and needs at play will shift.

Finding your own private office space in Houston is not a challenge; it requires, however, acknowledging that the time has come to take this next step. Signals that it's time to move out and get your own space typically surface in two ways:

  1. What used to feel like an intimate setting has turned into an untenable situation. People are spending too much time talking about the coworking space and its limits.
  2. And, on the flip side, branding your company identity becomes a topic on your radar. If you find a great software engineer interested in joining your team, they might have some reservations about coming aboard with you if they discover you're sitting in a coworking space rather than your own space.

At SquareFoot, the commercial real estate company I founded in Houston in 2011, I have given special attention to companies looking for their first office space. It can be daunting at first, but our brokers know better than anyone how to be trusted advisors for small business owners searching for their first locations.

The most important question at this stage, we've found, is not which neighborhood they'd like to be in, what their budget is, or what amenities they want. Rather, it's a common growth question: Where do you see yourself in three to five years? By asking this question of CEOs in initial conversations, we can get a better idea of what type of growth they project, and how we can most efficiently find them the right space to accommodate their current needs and future goals.

We see office space as more than segments of larger office buildings. These spaces mean a great deal to the companies that inhabit them. It's our responsibility to fit the right team into the right space, and to advocate and negotiate on their behalf.

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SquareFoot Founder and CEO Jonathan Wasserstrum, who hails from Houston, has worked for over a decade in commercial real estate. Outside of work, Jonathan is interested in the three Bs — bourbon, buffalo wings, and brass bands.

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Here are 3 breakthrough innovations coming out of research at Houston institutions

Research Roundup

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research projects, we look into studies on robotics advancing stroke patient rehabilitation, the future of opioid-free surgery, and a breakthrough in recycling plastics.

The University of Houston's research on enhancing stroke rehabilitation

A clinical trial from a team at UH found that stroke survivors gained clinically significant arm movement and control by using an external robotic device powered by the patients' own brains. Image via UH.edu

A researcher at the University of Houston has seen positive results on using his robotics on stroke survivors for rehabilitation. Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, director of UH's Non-Invasive Brain Machine Interface Systems Laboratory, recently published the results of the clinical trial in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical.

The testing proved that most patients retained the benefits for at least two months after the therapy sessions ended, according to a press release from UH, and suggested even more potential in the long term. The study equipped stroke survivors who have limited movement in one arm with a computer program that captures brain activity to determine the subject's intentions and then works with a robotic device affixed to the affected arm, to move in response to those intentions.

"This is a novel way to measure what is going on in the brain in response to therapeutic intervention," says Dr. Gerard Francisco, professor and chair of physical medicine and rehabilitation at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and co-principal investigator, in the release.

"This study suggested that certain types of intervention, in this case using the upper robot, can trigger certain parts of brain to develop the intention to move," he continues. "In the future, this means we can augment existing therapy programs by paying more attention to the importance of engaging certain parts of the brain that can magnify the response to therapy."

The trial was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and Mission Connect, part of the TIRR Foundation. Contreras-Vidal is working on a longer term project with a National Science Foundation grant in order to design a low-cost system that would allow people to continue the treatments at home.

"If we are able to send them home with a device, they can use it for life," he says in the release.

Baylor College of Medicine's work toward opioid-free surgery

A local doctor is focused on opioid-free options. Photo via Getty Images

In light of a national opioid crisis and more and more data demonstrating the negative effects of the drugs, a Baylor College of Medicine orthopedic surgeon has been working to offer opioid-free surgery recovery to his patients.

"Thanks to a number of refinements, we are now able to perform hip and knee replacements, ranging from straightforward to very complex cases, without patients requiring a single opioid pill," says Dr. Mohamad Halawi, associate professor and chief quality officer in the Joseph Barnhart Department of Orthopedic Surgery, in a press release.

"Pain is one of patients' greatest fears when undergoing surgery, understandably so," Halawi continues. "Today, most patients wake up from surgery very comfortable. Gone are the days of trying to catch up with severe pain. It was a vicious cycle with patients paying the price in terms of longer hospitalization, slower recovery and myriad adverse events."

Halawi explains that his work focuses on preventative measures ahead of pain occurring as well as cutting out opioids before surgery.

"Opioid-free surgery is the way of the future, and it has become a standard of care in my practice," he says. "The ability to provide safer and faster recovery to all patients regardless of their surgical complexity is gratifying. I want to make sure that pain is one less thing for patients to worry about during their recovery."

Rice University's breakthrough on recycling plastics

A team of scientists have found a use for a material that comes out of plastics recycling.

Houston scientists has found a new use for an otherwise useless byproduct that comes from recycling plastics. Rice University chemist James Tour has discovered that turbostratic graphene flakes can be produced from pyrolyzed plastic ash, and those flakes can then be added to other substances like films of polyvinyl alcohol that better resist water in packaging and cement paste and concrete, as well as strengthen the material.

"This work enhances the circular economy for plastics," Tour says in a press release. "So much plastic waste is subject to pyrolysis in an effort to convert it back to monomers and oils. The monomers are used in repolymerization to make new plastics, and the oils are used in a variety of other applications. But there is always a remaining 10% to 20% ash that's valueless and is generally sent to landfills.

Tour's research has appeared in the journal Carbon. The co-authors of the study include Rice graduate students Jacob Beckham, Weiyin Chen and Prabhas Hundi and postdoctoral researcher Duy Xuan Luong, and Shivaranjan Raghuraman and Rouzbeh Shahsavari of C-Crete Technologies. The National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Department of Energy supported the research.

"Recyclers do not turn large profits due to cheap oil prices, so only about 15% of all plastic gets recycled," said Rice graduate student Kevin Wyss, lead author of the study. "I wanted to combat both of these problems."

Houston biotech startup raises millions to battle pediatric cancer

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Allterum Therapeutics Inc. has built a healthy launchpad for clinical trials of an immunotherapy being developed to fight a rare form of pediatric cancer.

The Houston startup recently collected $1.8 million in seed funding through an investor group associated with Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which focuses on commercializing biotech and medtech discoveries. Allterum has also brought aboard pediatric oncologist Dr. Philip Breitfeld as its chief medical officer. And the startup, a Fannin spinout, has received a $2.9 million grant from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas.

The funding and Breitfeld's expertise will help Allterum prepare for clinical trials of 4A10, a monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of cancers that "express" the interleukin-7 receptor (IL7R) gene. These cancers include pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and some solid-tumor diseases. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted "orphan drug" and "rare pediatric disease" designations to Allterum's monoclonal antibody therapy.

If the phrase "monoclonal antibody therapy" sounds familiar, that's because the FDA has authorized emergency use of this therapy for treatment of COVID-19. In early January, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced the start of a large-scale clinical trial to evaluate monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of mild and moderate cases of COVID-19.

Fannin Innovation Studio holds exclusive licensing for Allterum's antibody therapy, developed at the National Cancer Institute. Aside from the cancer institute, Allterum's partners in advancing this technology include the Therapeutic Alliance for Children's Leukemia, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital, Children's Oncology Group, and Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Although many pediatric patients with ALL respond well to standard chemotherapy, some patients continue to grapple with the disease. In particular, patients whose T-cell ALL has returned don't have effective standard therapies available to them. Similarly, patients with one type of B-cell ALL may not benefit from current therapies. Allterum's antibody therapy is designed to effectively treat those patients.

Later this year, Allterum plans to seek FDA approval to proceed with concurrent first- and second-phase clinical trials for its immunotherapy, says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, and president and CEO of Allterum. The cash Allterum has on hand now will go toward pretrial work. That will include the manufacturing of the antibody therapy by Japan's Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, which operates a facility in College Station.

"The process of making a monoclonal antibody ready to give to patients is actually quite expensive," says Varadhachary, adding that Allterum will need to raise more money to carry out the clinical trials.

The global market for monoclonal antibody therapies is projected to exceed $350 billion by 2027, Fortune Business Insight says. The continued growth of these products "is expected to be a major driver of overall biopharmaceutical product sales," according to a review published last year in the Journal of Biomedical Science.

One benefit of these antibody therapies, delivered through IV-delivered infusions, is that they tend to cause fewer side effects than chemotherapy drugs, the American Cancer Society says.

"Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced molecules engineered to serve as substitute antibodies that can restore, enhance or mimic the immune system's attack on cancer cells. They are designed to bind to antigens that are generally more numerous on the surface of cancer cells than healthy cells," the Mayo Clinic says.

Varadhachary says that unlike chemotherapy, monoclonal antibody therapy takes aim at specific targets. Therefore, monoclonal antibody therapy typically doesn't broadly harm healthy cells the way chemotherapy does.

Allterum's clinical trials initially will involve children with ALL, he says, but eventually will pivot to children and adults with other kinds of cancer. Varadhachary believes the initial trials may be the first cancer therapy trials to ever start with children.

"Our collaborators are excited about that because, more often than not, the cancer drugs for children are ones that were first developed for adults and then you extend them to children," he says. "We're quite pleased to be able to do something that's going to be important to children."

Houston expert calls for more innovation within the construction industry

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The construction industry has the opportunity to drive positive change through the development and deployment of technologies influencing the way we work and live, ultimately affecting our environment, communities, and personal well-being.

Carbon emissions come from a handful of broad categories, including transportation, electricity production, and industry. According to the International Energy Agency, more than a third of all global greenhouse gases come from the building and construction industry. Concrete production alone contributes an estimated 8 percent of global carbon emissions. As a result, in Houston, we are vulnerable to longer, hotter summers, stronger hurricanes and once-in-a-lifetime storms. But I'm optimistic that there is opportunity for our industry to come together and reverse the current trajectory.

We must continue developing and deploying new technologies and best practices to reduce emissions. By using data to understand the environmental implications of the materials we use, we can make adjustments that are beneficial to both our clients and the environment.

One such example is the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator, known as "EC3." Skanska USA developed the open-source, freely available software in collaboration with Microsoft and C Change Labs. The tool democratizes important building data and allows the construction industry to calculate and evaluate carbon emissions associated with various building materials.

Now hosted and managed by Building Transparency, a new 501c3 organization, the EC3 tool was incubated at the Carbon Leadership Forum with input from nearly 50 industry partners. Like the tech industry, we should promote knowledge-sharing among general contractors to drive innovation and sustainability.

The demand for this tool is growing because it's not only the right thing to do, but it also benefits our communities and drives stakeholder value. Now more than ever, clients want to be responsible global citizens and they know that adopting green building practices is attractive to their prospective workforce and their clients and customers.

In Houston, the current population of 7.1 million will double to 14.2 million by 2050. With that population growth comes the need for more housing, more office space and more transportation options. Last April, Houston enacted a climate action plan that sets goals aligned with those from the Paris accord — carbon neutrality by 2050.

Similar local plans have been and are continually being developed all around the world, a necessary step to address a global issue that impacts all of us. Like others, the Houston plan contemplates how to reduce carbon emissions that are the result of energy consumption which accounts for about half of Houston's greenhouse-gas emissions.

Innovations in energy efficiency can help drive down energy consumption. As conscientious global and local citizens, we also have to consider the emissions that are created by the raw materials that are used in construction. That's become a much easier process with the EC3 tool. Now architects, engineers and others involved in the design process can make data-driven decisions that can have significant impact on the carbon footprint — as much as a 30 percent reduction in embodied carbon — of a structure that are mostly cost-neutral.

Embodied-carbon reductions can be made simply by smartly using data. The EC3 tool is one of many steps toward innovative building practices and complements the important ongoing work done by the U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees LEED certification.

Opting for sustainable building practices is good for the environment, but it's also good for the people who will spend time in these spaces. Green building reduces the use of toxic materials, and studies have found that sustainable structures, such as schools, health care facilities and airports, have positive impacts on cognitive ability, seasonal affective disorder and overall happiness.

We are also seeing an influx of client requests for sustainable and healthy building upgrades, especially since the onset of COVID-19. These upgrades are changing the way we live and work while supporting infection control, from touchless elevators to advanced air filtration systems.

For example, innovation has been instrumental throughout the pandemic for the aviation industry's safe operation. Increased biometrics across airport touchpoints, flexible passenger gathering areas that include modifications to passenger hold rooms and departure lounges, and environmental monitoring and wayfinding technology to alert passengers of airport congestion points are a few new concepts airports are incorporating into builds to keep travelers healthy now and in a post-COVID world.

Overall, the construction sector will play an essential role in how we approach expanding the built environment over the next 30 years. Using data and striving for continual innovation, we have a great opportunity to come together as an industry and create real change that will benefit our collective lives and those of generations to come.

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Dennis Yung is executive vice president and general manager at
Skanska, one of the world's leading project development and construction groups, where he oversees building operations for Houston and North Texas.