A question that many have been asking and wondering about is “what will the workplace look like after this pandemic is over?” The answer to that is that we are learning exactly what this will entail. There are a lot of details involved and it is important for organizations to get this right. One thing that we can be sure of is that the offices that were left behind before the pandemic began, are gone- possibly for good.
The Impact To Office Design
This will be the first and among the largest impact because as states are beginning to plan lifting their shelter in place orders, building managers, owners, property managers, and company leaders are also beginning to plan how to return to work. When it comes to designing the post-pandemic workplace, it must look different.
Gone will be open floor plans with benching desks, desks clustered together, lobbies with furniture close together, conference rooms and kitchens with lots of seating. Social distancing guidelines will require a minimum of six feet between chairs and desks. The World Economic Forum discussed the Six Foot Office, which is a method of transforming existing offices into places where the six-feet distance rule that governments may continue to mandate can be observed. Many believe that this is will lead to office furniture being redefined as well. Office furniture has become smaller and smaller over the years and now the pandemic will lead to individuals not wanting to sit closely together anymore.
Also, gathering in large groups for meetings will go on hiatus for an unknown amount of time. Those that relied on hot desks will need their own to avoid the spread of germs. Some experts are predicting that antimicrobial materials that are typically used in hospitals and labs could make their way to offices. In addition, there will be the need for the use of materials that can be cleaned and wiped regularly in order to avoid ones that harbor germs.
It is also possible to see things like sneeze guards or safe zones in an office building to keep employees safe.
You could also see hand sanitizer stations placed throughout a building as well as signs reminding employees to wash their hands regularly. If you’re wondering about touching the elevator buttons, that might be done with a wave of your hand or even by your voice. You may also see more signs on floors encouraging employees which way to walk or where to stand.
Ventilation will also be important because not all office windows can be opened. This is where climate control systems will be beneficial.
The Impact to the Remote Workforce
Many organizations that did not have a remote workforce prior to this pandemic have stepped up and created one because they did not have an option. I think that many businesses are going to find that they need to continue remote working- either to spread out and socially distance their workforce or to reduce their office footprint. Some experts have suggested that it’s possible to see different teams working on different days in order to reduce the amount of employees who are inside the building at one time. I tend to believe that most employers will continue to heavily rely on remote work because it will help them avoid any future stay at home orders.
According to Recode, working from home is here to stay. We already know that many employers were resisting remote work for one reason or another but now are viewing it as a lifeline to productivity, cutting costs, and ultimately staying in business by having the continued ability to provide services and/ or deliver goods. Reducing rent/ lease obligations by letting employees to work from home is much less painful than layoffs. It will also help with any social distancing mandates. However, those organizations who were less prepared for the shift will need more formal and company-wide policies on remote work in order for this shift to be continually successful. Some of those policies should include things like what time of night is acceptable to expect a response on Slack, how employees can securely access company files, and whether employees are allowed to expense an at-home monitor, desk, or other equipment / office needs, among other things to minimize any confusion and questions.
34 percent of Americans who previously commuted to work were working from home by the first week of April due to the coronavirus, per a MIT report. According to the University of Chicago, this is the same percentage of individuals who can work from home. Prior to the pandemic, the numbers of those working from home were still in the single digits. I firmly believe that we will continue to see growth in this area even as stay at home orders are gradually lifted, including new roles that are created and opened up.
CoWorking is Destined to Change
CoWorking always brought flexibility and the ability for those to looking to downsize from large, traditional office spaces into smaller space without having to deal with the same long-term lease requirements. What many did not realize is that it would be a health hazard to be working in close quarters with others. No one ever imagined that a hot desk could be feared because of the amount germs it could have. However, this crisis does highlight some things.
The first is that the demand for flexibility won’t go away. Those needing to downsize will still love the value that it brings to their organization. However, those communal areas, such as the hot desks will need to change as they will likely be feared. If an individual doesn’t know when the last time something was cleaned, it’s going to be quite difficult to expect them to want to sit there. Communal areas will either require mandatory cleaning with posted times or less communal areas in favor of private space with more social distancing. There isn’t one clear set of guidance on this quite yet, so there are plenty of contradictory thoughts depending on your views.
This also means that the demand for office space will remain uncertain for some time. Mandatory social distancing protocols, which means spacing people out even further could mean the need for even more physical space. For others, layoffs and remote work could decrease the demand for physical space. Both could be true at the same time as well depending on which industry you work in, where you work, etc.
At the very least, some employers are considering tools to help identify co-workers an infected employee has come into contact with in the office. This type of contact tracing would allow for managers to identify and notify any colleagues that an employee with a positive COVID-19 has come into contact with. This could be done without the need for interviews and recalling interactions. It would help to avoid a wider outbreak. This type of technology would only work on corporate property, could only be accessed by specific managers, and wouldn’t collect or store location data.
Several large employers are currently discussing ways to check their front-line employees. Some organizations are considering mandating thermal scanners while others are considering infrared body temperature scanners. Both could help control and slow the spread.
Whatever the choice is, I am fairly certain that enhanced and more frequent cleanings are also a real possibility. Most businesses will also likely be required to provide face masks for employees.
No matter what the measures might be, let’s not forget- most are afraid to return to their usual office space and want to know that they will be safe. We also cannot be productive if we are not safe and healthy. Getting through this pandemic with careful measures has helped thus far and can help us well into the future.