Interview with Andy Stern: COVID and the Future

Recently, Andy participated in a video conference interview with the owners of yZign, a boutique interior design studio specializing in creating signature interiors. Alex Petrov, CEO, and Iwona Petrov, CCO, relocated to the United States from Europe in 2006 and formed their namesake design brand in 2010. Located in the heart of Bethesda, they specialize in producing “imaginative environments that are thoughtful, personal, and quietly clever.” The Petrovs and Andy have enjoyed a long and successful professional relationship marked by mutual respect.

They sat down to discuss the modern office and its future in light of the effects from COVID-19.  The interview begins with an introduction highlighting Andy Sterns Office Furniture’s corporate history. The company was started by Andy’s father in 1948 as a full-service office furniture company specializing in commercial interior design, order procurement, order tracking, program management, and delivery and installation. Recently, they merged with Benjamin Office Supply & Services, so that now in addition to office furniture and design, they provide a full array of office supplies from paperclips to paper towels. They even offer free delivery to local businesses!

Discussing some of the most significant changes he’s seen in the industry because of COVID, Andy observes that the current trend is for comfortable office seating at home. “People can’t sit in their dining room chairs anymore. And I’d say there is also increased interest in sit-to-stand desks,” he says.

He also notes the emergence of a brand-new industry. “In the last eight weeks, a whole new product category has presented itself across every manufacturing industry – acrylic sneeze guard protectors or wellness screens.” These are in high demand now because of the shared common space element of open office design, a popular trend over the past five years or so due to the concept of collaboration. Now, the open design office spaces want to retrofit their desking with acrylic sneeze guard protectors.

“We have these sneeze guard protectors, or wellness screens, that are available for desks, reception stations, and conference rooms,” says Andy. The protectors can be attached to a surface such as a desk, or they can be freestanding. “This is literally what we are talking about every day,” he says. “People are thinking about how they are going to go back to work and what they are going to need.”

As for the future of the typical office, Andy believes that although the trend will probably continue for remote work, it won’t mean the end of the traditional office. He thinks the office is here to stay, even if it may not be designed in the same way. “The whole trend for the past five years has been geared toward collaboration, both in design concepts and in unique styles, such as Resimercial,” explains Andy.

Therefore, Andy foresees both long-term and short-term effects for office environments. In the long term he speculates that offices may be smaller, but they won’t disappear. The most obvious effects, however, are short term. “It looks like we’re going back to high cubicles, probably made of glass or laminate so they can be cleaned easily,” he says. He expects to see more private offices and designs that accommodate social distancing. Also, he notes, “When we get back to the office, we are going to see signs everywhere: arrows directing traffic flow and reminders to wash your hands, to sanitize your workstation, and to stay six feet apart.”

His company is working on three big projects right now for an office space company that is local. “They have big, open collaborative areas surrounded by private offices all around. We are really thinking hard about how we can rearrange those large, open areas. They’re going to have more private offices, but they are still going to have an open area. We’ve had to design it so that the tables are seven feet apart and angled so that they’re not facing each other.”

As a two-term chairman of the Bethesda Area Chamber of Commerce, Andy is observing first-hand how local businesses are responding to concerns about the future. From my perspective,” he says, “I’ve seen so many businesses pivot and become so nimble in changing their business models, particularly among the young business owners. I think they need to stay optimistic. There is hope, and I think things will come back and come back well.”

Andy is confident that the office will survive, and he has poised his company to help adjust to recent challenges. “There is still a need for people to collaborate. Zoom can work, but it’s not the same thing as being right in front of someone.” As we reopen, Andy urges, “Be innovative, be nimble, and remember there is hope. Things are going to be better in the future, you just have to hang in there and figure out how to make your company survive until things come back. It might be new thinking, new services, new products, and new way of going about business.” Whether it’s design, furniture, or supplies, Andy Sterns Office Furniture is well equipped to help businesses design and furnish their workspaces beautifully, efficiently, and safely.

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