For some workers, returning to the office will give them a sense of normalcy again. But what they return to might be far from normal.
There’s likely going to be more space between desks, added partitions and sanitation stations, plus new rules on the use of common areas, meetings and where and how to keep food. Oh, and there might even be robots.
Who’s coming back when
For many companies, there won’t be a mass influx of workers returning to the office all at once.
Some companies could bring workers back in phases, while others might create staggered schedules that will limit the number of people working in the office at the same time so it’s not filled to capacity and easier to keep workers apart.
We could also see more employees continue to work from home permanently in order to help reduce the number of people in the office.
Getting into the office
Companies will want to have more control over who is coming into the office.
Expect temperature checks at the entrances, where anyone who is exhibiting a fever could be sent home.
Some companies are going a step further and providing antibody testing. Real estate firm Rastegar Property Company in Austin, Texas, gave all its workers antibody tests.
The company paid for the tests, which were done in a conference room over the course of several hours. Workers didn’t have to disclose their results unless they chose to.
“We have a very open and transparent culture, medical and other issues are always deemed confidential unless people feel they want to share,” said Kellie Rastegar, co-founder and creative director at Rastegar Property Company.
Companies are also cracking down on visitors.
“We will limit the traffic in,” said Gil Borok, CEO and president, US, Colliers International, a commercial real estate services and investment management firm headquartered in Toronto.
The new workspace
In the post-pandemic office, it’s all about social distancing. That means the open office plan that so many companies bragged about in the past is going to look a whole lot different.
“When offices start to open up post-Covid, we’re going to start to see different barriers, like what’s being used at the grocery stores to protect employees,” said Rastegar. That could mean partitions, privacy panels or higher walls between desks.
Desks are going to be moved so they are at least six feet apart and conference rooms are going to have to be reconfigured to create more space between participants.
Expect to see subtle reminders throughout the office about social distance. Puppet, an IT automation company based in Portland, Oregon, is considering adding six-foot-long carpets behind workers’ desks to give other employees a visual cue for where they should stand to ask a question.
All about the sanitizing
Sure, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer will be scattered throughout the office, but there’s a good chance cleaning crews are also going to be coming through several times a day.
Puppet will incorporate freestanding hand sanitizer stations in its office space.
The company has a porter at its Portland office that cleans high-touch surfaces throughout the day and will likely increase the frequency of cleaning at its global offices as employees return.
“We will look at ways to have employees take responsibility for cleaning up rooms they use or possibly look at lighting indicator systems that shows us when a room has been used and needs to be disinfected,” said Puppet’s Director of Global Workplace Laura Nichols.
Companies could also use stickers to indicate a space has been sanitized to assure workers that they are entering a clean space, said Rastegar.
“When a person leaves the office or conference room, they will sanitize the whole thing: table, chairs, everything that gets touched is sanitized,” she said.
You might also have to rein in all those knick-knacks on your desk.
“Companies could say nothing is allowed on your desk except what you are actually working on,” said Rastegar.
Another way to help keep a desk clean is to have a piece of paper placed on top of each desk surface for workers to work on top of and then throw away the paper at the end of the day, she added.
The kitchen is closed
Workers are going to have to find a new place to gossip and get coffee because kitchens are likely to be closed.
“It would cause a lot of problems to keep them open,” said Peter Cappelli, management professor at the Wharton Business School. “I imagine they will close them and you will see more vending machines. It’s a great time for vending machines – they have the appearance of being cleaner and safer.”
To help offset the loss of the communal coffee after it closed its kitchen, Rastegar Property Company purchased coffeemakers for workers who wanted one to keep in their office.
Some companies might also be more strict with food in the office.
Puppet removed communal food and utensils in its offices. “It is too easy for that to contribute to the virus spreading,” said Puppet CEO Yvonne Wassenaar.
Gentle – but firm – reminders
Guiding employees on how they move around the office can help reduce unnecessary contact.
“You can guide flow through a space with subtleness with furniture,” said Ben Watson, chief creative officer, Herman Miller. Using items like a bookcase, filing cabinets or even large plants or trees can help direct traffic and limit access to certain areas.
At Puppet, leaders are looking for ways to direct traffic in the office to help minimize pinch points and maximize distancing. For instance, certain hallways and stairs could become one way only.
More square footage
Social distancing requires a lot of space.
Even if some employees work from home permanently, employers might still need to increase the size of their offices to accommodate everyone.
“My guess is we’ll have more demand for office space, not less, because people will want social distancing,” said Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, said Sunday on “Face the Nation.”
He also said that companies might open up more “hub-and-spoke systems.”
Smaller offices could be located in more suburban settings close to the main office and employees’ homes, to cut down on the amount of time employees would spend on public transportation.
Don’t be surprised if you see more copper around the office.
Experts have found that coronavirus can live for a few days on stainless steel and plastic surfaces, but only up to four hours on copper.
“We are going to have to look into sourcing materials that are antimicrobial and that bacteria and viruses can’t survive very long on,” said Rastegar.
More tech, less touching
We could also see a lot more advanced technology at work in the coming months to help reduce contact.
Rastegar said IoT sensors with automatic sanitizing capabilities could be added throughout the office. And voice or foot-controlled technology to activate elevator buttons or lights could also become common.
And there could be a new co-worker to help with mundane tasks like coffee. “Robots might be coming into offices,” said Rastegar. “You order through technology like an iPad and have a robot bring you the order.”