What Will Offices Look Like After The COVID-19 Pandemic?

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For years, the open-plan office layout has been touted as the “be-all, end-all” solution to fostering a more interactive and collaborative work environment. This has led to some companies ditching cubicles in favor of bench-style desks, allowing people to sit closer together.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has thrown the safety of open offices into question, along with other longstanding norms — or the lack thereof — that may be putting employees at risk.

With more people heading back to work as lockdown restrictions are eased, experts in various fields are in the process of helping companies adapt to a post-pandemic world. And while keeping offices 100% virus-proof isn’t entirely possible, there are things that companies can do to minimize the risks.

Gensler, a global design and architecture firm headquartered in San Francisco, suggests improving indoor air quality, having virtual meetings even while in the office, and ensuring that proper cleaning and sanitizing protocols are implemented, among other recommendations.

To make the post-lockdown planning process easier for their clients, Gensler also created a tool called ReRun, which can be used to generate different scenarios for clients to identify the most effective plan for various physical distancing conditions and help inform their organizational return strategies.

Then there is also the issue of whether working from home will become more common, or if companies will allow their employees to work from home permanently.

Research conducted by Gensler discovered that some workers would prefer to continue working from home, with many reporting that they’re able to be more productive and efficient.

Even if some employees work from home permanently, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt believes that there will still be more demand for office space, not less, as people continue to practice social distancing. He also says that companies may also implement “hub-and-spoke” systems with smaller offices in suburban settings to minimize the amount of time employees spend on public transport.

Gable Clarke, director of interior design at the architecture firm SGA, suggests implementing staggered workdays to avoid having too many people in the office at any given time, making it easier to implement social distancing guidelines.

Companies can also limit the number of visitors that can enter their premises, and deputize someone to be in charge of making sure that hygiene and social distancing measures are being followed.

Another suggestion is to do away with assigned desks or workstations, as this increases the chances of employees decorating them with family photos and other personal items which janitorial staff likely wouldn’t want to touch. 

Okta Inc.’s global workplace service vice president Armen Vartanian supports this idea, saying that having open desks and workstations that employees can choose and clean up daily will likely be more sanitary.

For added protection, sheets of paper can be placed on top of desks for employees to work on top of. These must then be disposed of properly before leaving the office.

Companies can also enforce temperature checks at entrances and install barriers or higher partitions between desks, similar to those being used at banks and supermarkets. Companies should also rearrange desks to make sure that they are at least six feet apart, and use furniture or large plants to direct the flow of foot traffic. Some hallways and stairs could become one-way only to help minimize pinch points.

Puppet, a Portland-based IT automation company, is considering adding six-foot-long carpets behind desks as a visual cue for where employees could stand when they need to talk to someone. The company will also be placing freestanding hand sanitizer stations throughout the office and will increase the frequency of cleaning across its global offices. 

Laura Nichols, Puppet’s Director of Global Workplace, says that the company will be looking at ways to have employees take responsibility for cleaning up after themselves. They are also considering installing indicator systems that will light up when a room has been used and needs to be disinfected.

Kitchens will also likely to stay closed, and companies will have to be more strict with food in the office. Puppet, for instance, has removed all communal food and utensils in their kitchens as these can easily contribute to the spread of viruses among employees.

Peter Cappelli, a management professor at Wharton Business School, believes that now is a great time for vending machines as they have the appearance of being cleaner and safer.

Since studies have shown that coronaviruses can only survive for up to four hours on copper, companies may also find ways to use more copper and other antimicrobial material throughout the office.

Meanwhile, businesses like Rastegar Property Company in Austin are going above and beyond to keep their employees safe and happy during the pandemic by providing free antibody tests for employees. The company also purchased coffeemakers for employees to use since it had to close its kitchen.

As we progress past these initial stages, we will likely see more advanced technology being used in offices as companies continue to seek ways to reduce contact. This may include anything from IoT sensors with automatic sanitizing capabilities to elevator buttons and lights that may be activated by voice or foot-controlled technology.

Though robots likely won’t be replacing human workers anytime soon, having your coffee delivered by a friendly office robot isn’t necessarily all that far off.