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Jamie Dimon, the chief executive at JPMorgan Chase, said in a letter to shareholders last week that the coronavirus pandemic will "significantly reduce" the firm's need for office space. The bank's return-to-work plans, he added, call for about 60 desks for every 100 employees.
"Remote work will change how we manage our real estate," Dimon wrote, italics included.
Dimon's pledge to downsize, though, doesn't seem to apply to the brand-new headquarters that JPMorgan is building in midtown Manhattan for about 14,000 of its more than 250,000 employees. But while the firm is forging ahead with work on the $3 billion tower, which is set to begin rising this year and is slated for completion in 2024, it's adapting its interior design to the times.
A construction document provided to Insider by a source with direct knowledge of the bank's real-estate plans hinted at the shift that JPMorgan envisions for the layouts in its headquarters space. The firm plans to utilize what it calls a "universal design" for the interior of the 1,425-foot tower at 270 Park Avenue.
The document, a request for proposals recently released by the bank to procure a construction manager for the skyscraping project, said the ideal interior for the 2.5 million-square-foot skyscraper will be able to accommodate multiple configurations. A spokesperson for JPMorgan Chase told Insider the bank was pursuing a flexible design both in response to the pandemic and as part of a strategy predating COVID-19 in which it sought to make its workspaces more malleable to shifting work practices and habits.
"We are learning from this year, and always design our spaces to be flexible to adapt to any business or market changes," the spokesperson said.
The desire for flexibility is a break from the prevailing office designs before the pandemic, when most tenants sought to cram employees into densely packed, open layouts that were both efficient and thought to enhance collaboration.
Now more tenants are trying to build adaptability into spaces to accommodate the office's evolving and uncertain role in the future. The office may be a place for employees to work only part of the time or on specific tasks or projects, or where they gather primarily for group work, meetings, or events.
"270 Park Avenue is an example of a building that probably has a four- or five-year time frame before it's finished, but they need to design it in the next year or so during a very fluid period," said Emily Sobel, an architect and senior director at Savills who focuses on office design. "We're in a moment of peak change, and designers have a heavy lift to take what we already knew was a need for flexibility and now future-proof it."
JPMorgan is subleasing about 170,000 square feet of space it doesn't need at two other Manhattan buildings, 4 New York Plaza, and 5 Manhattan West, Bloomberg reported in March.
Still, the bank is about to begin building the foundation of 270 Park Avenue on the full block between Park and Madison avenues and 47th and 48th streets. On the same site, workers have been finishing demolition of the previous headquarters. It was 707 feet tall, 52 stories, and took months to disassemble.
The post-pandemic office may not have 'rows of desks'
The office's suddenly amorphous role has translated into a new suite of design decisions. Gone are the "factory rows of desks," said Thomas Vecchione, a principal at the boutique interior-design and architecture firm Vocon. He said that tenants are installing robust wireless internet to avoid having to tether workstations and desks to fixed points of connectivity, allowing layouts to be easily changed.
Vecchione described a new thinking on office design that favors unassigned seating — colloquially known as a "hot desk" system, which Dimon cited in the shareholder letter — and ample communal areas where employees can work, but that can also accommodate group events and gatherings. Conference rooms or other partitioned spaces within an office are now intentionally designed, he said, so that they can either be closed off to create privacy or facilitate focused work or opened up and combined with adjacent spaces for larger gatherings.
"We make sure now that every space has three functions it can be associated with, whether it's a Zoom room, a team room, or a more private office space," Vecchione added.
"We're building that headquarters for 50 years. It is not a short-term decision," Dimon said in an October earnings call. "We are extremely excited about the building's public spaces, state-of-the-art technology, and health and wellness amenities, among many other features."
Employees who worked out of 270 Park before the pandemic included executives, traders, bankers, lenders, and administrative staff. The range of roles means that a wholly flexible layout could present challenges; for regulatory reasons, there are strict informational barriers between certain departments that would make it hard for, say, an investment banker and an equity research analyst to sit in close proximity.
The website New York YIMBY, which tracks major real-estate projects, released an early rendering of 270 Park Avenue, acknowledging it "could already be outdated." JPMorgan has not disclosed any official renderings.
Amanda Carroll, a managing director at the architecture firm Gensler, said that post-pandemic offices will also increasingly include features that support connectivity between in-person and remote workers.
"Tenants are thinking about spaces that are acoustically sound — that have higher-quality audio and visual capabilities — and lighting," Carroll said. "If you're plugging in remotely to your team, you don't want to have a subpar experience, and vice versa."
Vecchione said included in that are layouts that will best serve a world where more communications and meetings happen at least partly on screens.
"We're trying to really look at sight lines," Vecchione said. "You don't want to be on a Zoom chat and someone is behind you eating."
IBM is hunting for a large, 'agile' NYC office
Other tenants beyond JPMorgan have stated their intentions to create adaptable workspaces. IBM, for instance, told Insider that it is seeking to lease around 300,000 square feet in Manhattan for what it said will be an "agile" office.
The tech giant is expressing the same desire for flexibility that JPMorgan Chase is seeking, and a departure from its former office design.
"We are creating more agile, open, and flexible collaborative spaces," said Joanne Wright, the vice president of enterprise operations and services at IBM. "We can see people showing up and meeting in a group and being innovative, or it could be a space for individual learning cells and problem-solving, and then an open garage event for clients. When people return, it's going to be because they want an experience."