Workplace Designers Ted Moudis, Jamie Feuerborn On Enticing Office Tenants Back

More companies want their offices to foster hybrid working models

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Is the office as we have known it going to survive the COVID crisis?

After more than a year of working from home, that’s what a lot of real estate aficionados have been asking themselves. How are you going to keep them going into Paree after they have spent a year surrounded by the wonders of the farm?

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Fortunately, while the exact circumstances were not predictable, the tension between staying at home and going into the office has been manifest for several years now. Technology enables us to do our basic jobs from anywhere, so the office has become more a place where workers need to want to be rather than have to be. 

Hence the proliferation of gyms and lunch places and bench seating and so on. If you have to entice your workers to come in, it’s going to be reflected in the workplace. And, in the financial world, where meeting face to face with a coterie of rich clients is the heart of the business, there’s no choice but to make the office as enticing as you can. 

At Manhattan-based Ted Moudis Associates, a client list from the financial industry runs longer than 90 and goes from Ameriprise Financial to Wellspring Capital Management, with stops at Blackstone, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs. That means that servicing the financial world’s office needs is more than just guesswork. They managed to do most of the redesign of Mizuho Bank’s Midtown offices before the start of the COVID emergency, for instance. 

The Moudis firm specializes in interior design, and its non-financial clients include consumer products companies, such as Foot Locker and Rent the Runway; media and entertainment companies, such as Condé Nast, Major League Baseball and the National Football League; and real estate firms, such as CBRE, Cushman & Wakefield, Boston Properties and Brookfield.

Ted Moudis and a top executive, Jamie Feuerborn, the firm’s principal of workplace strategy, sat down for a Zoom meeting earlier this month with Commercial Observer. Here are some of their observations, lightly edited for brevity and clarity:

Commercial Observer: What do you see office clients asking for?

Ted Moudis: What’s been happening with our clients, especially the larger organizations, is that everyone is now planning for the return to the workplace. And everybody has a different idea of timing, whether it’s June, September or before the end of the year.

What we’ve been doing for many is planning for what they should be doing within their office space in order for the staff to return. Most are also considering a hybrid situation, where people will still continue working, some from home — but when they’re back in the office, what is it that we need to do so that they will return to the office?

Jamie Feuerborn: It’s a very exciting time for workplace strategy and office design. We have a lot of the things that we’ve been talking about and thinking about when it comes to the workplace. Everything from focusing on well-being and creating better community spaces, and technology, too. … COVID was this catalyst for a lot of the change that a lot of organizations were already thinking about, but it pushed it up the priority list, putting it right at the top of everyone’s mind.

The office community was kind of taking a step back and saying, ‘How should we as an organization be working in the future? What should we take as lessons learned from this and apply it to how we think about the future?’

So, we are working with a number of clients either it’s coming in and being more of a consultant, to say we need a hybrid way of working; or [it’s] increasing collaboration, having more conference and meeting spaces, or more Zoom conversations, or more technology-enabled for physical and virtual interactions.

We’re helping to have clients prepare for more of a change management side, and to look at a new way of working. And we have a number whose projects are in design, who have leases coming up — we’re taking all of this into account.

What are you seeing being asked for by financial clients?

TM: In a trading operation, before COVID, everything was 5 foot, 60 inches [between workers]. That’s what everyone had embedded in their minds. Now, the 6-foot is in everyone’s mind.

So, for trading rooms that will be occupied six months from now or [at] the end of the year, we’re taking 6-foot into mind. But there are still many organizations that feel that things will return, and they’re still keeping the 5-foot for planning. With a financial institution, it’s really the trading where people are pushed together.

JF: It’s really about the organization and what their individual goals are, when it comes down to culture and what they want to have. Some clients are definitely ‘let’s get everyone into the office,’ and some are going to give more flexibility. It’ll be a blend.

Are clients seeking to build in that kind of flexibility? Are they preparing for when everybody has the option of working from home or working in the office? And, are they then reducing their office requirements?

TM: I really think that, besides running my own business for 30 years and being involved with my clients’ different businesses, it’s really how a business is managed and run. It’s less for the employees, if they want to stay home. Before COVID, those who didn’t want to come to the office could choose not to come to the office. A hybrid model will work, because it’s for the benefit of the business and how the business is run.

Everybody suggests pain. A year from now, two years from now, everybody’s going to be talking about this like your grandparents talk about the [Great] Depression or World War II.

So, what we’re talking about is: When do things go back to normal? Have we learned a lot by working this way? Do we see we are capable of functioning in this way? Yes, but not for long term. To collaborate, to be together, there’s nothing like being together in the office. So, in my opinion, it will return gradually.

There are organizations that will say, ‘You know what? We don’t need the real estate. Everybody work from home.’ It depends on how the business is being managed.

Some of the technology companies — social media — are telling their people they can work from home. Our business is diversified. There’s nothing like being in the city. There’s nothing like being in the office and being together, the way it was a year ago.

I’m in the office Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. What’s happening as things have been easing up, we’ve had people come up to the office for design development presentations. We do everything by the book social distancing, our office is safe.

You recently did a design for Mizuho. Was that done face to face or remotely?

TM: That was completed just before COVID hit. The actual project we did before COVID, and then whatever afterward, open items were done [early on during the crisis].

JF: We also do focus groups, engage with staff, we meet with a lot of different individuals in an organization, and there’s definitely this balance. People are eager to get back into the office. They want to be able to go into the office. That’s a huge part of what a culture is. But it’s a huge benefit to have flexibility.

It’s finding that right balance, and we’re working with clients on how we find that balance to build in more flexibility, but allow great space for people when they come in when they want to, and also to support the culture of the organization.

TM: The return to the city, it’s a big chain reaction. Walking around, driving around, it’s sad. I’ve been working in the city since I was 12 years old, working in my father’s business.

In order for the city to return restaurants, bars, theaters, delis, grocery stores that have been stranded because everyone left — it’s really supporting and bringing back the city we all love. We’re not going to be able to do that by hiding. It’s a bigger picture than just how are we going to work.

I’ve seen folks making both cases: people who believe there’s nothing like the city, and workers are eager to come back. And, also, there was a survey that said only 45 percent would be back by September.

TM: The momentum is starting to go in the right direction. Personally, I got my first vaccine shot last Tuesday, and I’m going to get my second the first week of April. It feels good. You can protect yourself, and you can carry it and give it to others.                

It’s a good feeling knowing this threat will soon be behind us. We’re not meant to operate the way we’ve operated the past year.