Goodbye, Open Office? How Workspaces Will Change After Coronavirus There are benefits to post-COVID innovations that go beyond avoiding contagions.
From NPR station

WAMU 88.5

Goodbye, Open Office? How Workspaces Will Change After Coronavirus

Goodbye, Open Office? How Workspaces Will Change After Coronavirus

Offices will soon feature additional safety measures to protect workers in the aftermath of the pandemic. Alex Kotliarskyi/Unsplash hide caption

toggle caption
Alex Kotliarskyi/Unsplash

No matter how long it takes to rid society of the coronavirus, the efforts are going to leave a permanent scar on offices.

Expect fewer desks, with empty space between them, perforated by high plexiglass walls. Hand sanitizer will always be in sight. Some offices will have sinks on wheels, ready to dispense soap and hot water where there is no plumbing to tap into.

Door handles will be obsolete. The building will know where you are and open doors and call elevators as you approach. To stop the spread of germs, security stations will monitor your temperature. You may have to wait in line to get inside. Your colleagues might start working 20 minutes before or after you. And you may get an occasional alert if a colleague who crossed your path calls in sick.

Article continues below

Many of these changes will take time, except in the most lucrative industries. But they will come, just as security measures were stepped up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and again with more high-profile mass shootings. Parts of office life that white-collar workers took for granted before the pandemic will, in a few years, seem as strange as walking through airport security with a bottle of water in your hand.

"We have to make everybody that uses those spaces feel like we've done our job to make them safe," says Andrew Bennett, a design principal at the BOKA Powell architecture firm in Dallas, who has been working on office renovation strategies with the American Institute of Architects. The AIA has released guidelines for re-opening that enforce everything from social distancing to changes in airflow within buildings.

"In this new normal, safe is not just about what a building code would tell you, that if there's a fire the sprinklers come on," he says. "Now, it's this whole new spectrum of viruses and the well-being of people and the quality of the air that they get in their buildings and everything like that."

While many of us are still adjusting to a work life based on Zoom calls and Slack messages — and some to being newly unemployed — plenty of people are imagining (and building) the office of tomorrow.

Getting Inside: Sidewalk Lines And Temperature Checks

The first change workers may notice will be to their schedules.

"Many buildings and employers are going to want to have staggered entry so that not everyone's getting to the office at the same time," says Mark Ein, chairman of Kastle Systems, a security services company based in Falls Church, Va., that has begun offering technology to help fight the spread of illnesses in the workplace.

For offices that still have crowds coming in, social distancing will mean workers will wait in lines that stretch past the entrance. In this case, modernist design offers some shelter. Buildings that are set on pillars (like the Forrestal Building between the Mall and L'Enfant Plaza, pictured below) might allow workers to queue in the understory. Other workers may have to wait on the sidewalk, or under newly constructed awnings or shelters.

The spaces underneath or outside of buildings could become places to queue. Courtesy of/U.S. Department of Energy hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/U.S. Department of Energy

When you reach the head of the line, you may notice something is missing in the more advanced buildings: the door handle. The once-innocuous necessity has become suspect in the age of COVID-19.

"There are so many shared surfaces, from the minute you walk in," Ein says. "Leveraging existing technology, we can make all of those surfaces touchless now. And so whether you get into the building with a fob or a key card, or we have an app that many of our customers use, you'll approach the building, you'll be authorized and the door will automatically open."

Workers will step through these automatic doors into lobbies that, as a Kastle press release says "will start to resemble airports with testing stations, screening queues, speed lanes, designated check-in times and self-check kiosks." You'll be checked for symptoms and fever before going any further. If you're sniffling a lot or have a nagging cough, you might be sent home.

The KastleSafeSystems plan uses existing technology to enforce social distancing and other safety measures in workplaces Courtesy of/Kastle hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of/Kastle

Besides keeping sick people out of the building, this system creates a record of where employees go once they're inside. That makes contact tracing easier. "If someone is proven to be sick later or have coronavirus, you actually can go back and figure out who was near them when they were in the office," Ein says.

After a health check, it's time to go upstairs. Because you will have already checked in, the elevator will know to expect you and be ready to take you to your desired floor. Bennett says some elevators may one day be fitted with UV lights to zap any germs that riders leave behind.

But the lift might not be the most desired way to get up and down a building when hundreds of people are coming and going at once.

"If you really want to social distance, that means one person at a time in an elevator, which means people are going to want to use the stairwells," says Julie Smith, chief administrative officer for Bozzuto, a real estate company with headquarters in Greenbelt, Md. "Then you have to think about what you're doing to maintain as clean of an environment in stairwells as possible."

The New Workspace

One change to workplaces will be immediately visible once you get off the elevator. The open office plan will be no more. This could come soon to many offices — and not soon enough for employees.

"Management has loved it, but every job we've done, almost every job, the employees hated it," says Andy Stern, owner of the eponymous Andy Stern's Office Furniture, which has offices in D.C. and Rockville.

Stern has fielded calls from clients asking to retrofit open offices to give workers more space and to put dividers between them. Sometimes the dividers are clear, sometimes they're the traditional, 1990s-style cubicle.

"The manufacturing community started about a month ago, making acrylic dividers of every shape size you can think of," Stern says. He sent me a catalog page that he emailed to clients. It features a photo of a wood-paneled cubicle with "did you miss me?" written on it.

The catalog also featured items that will likely soon become commonplace. There were wood veneer hand sanitizer stations, portable plexiglass walls to divide conference room tables and self-contained hot-water sinks that can be wheeled to wherever a hand-washing station might be needed.

Bennett says some architects are rethinking where they place restrooms, possibly eliminating facilities that accommodate multiple people. There's interest in having more numerous, but smaller restrooms that keep people from gathering close to each other and can also be cleaned more quickly.

Many offices will likely encourage telework for a few days a week. Stern had already noticed an increase in telework among his clients, but he expects it to become more commonplace now. "Companies that used to take three floors of offices will take, you know, half a floor," he says.

Smith says Bozzuto's employees already have enough space around their desks to socially distance, but she expects telework to continue. Many employees, she says, will refrain from coming back to the office "until they either feel more comfortable doing so or they actually can do so because their kids are back in school."

Adjusting to some of these changes may take time, though. Many businesses will emerge from quarantine with drastically reduced budgets. Social distancing might be enforced through attrition, rather than remodeling.

Benefits For Those Who Can Afford Them

Bennett says his team priced out a touchless door system for a new project they were working on. The cost came out to about $200,000, or 1% of the total budget. The client decided to wait a few months before deciding.

The response to the coronavirus will vary from office-to-office and budget-to-budget. Some are well-suited to make changes right away. For instance, Ein says many of Kastle's clients already have the infrastructure in place for some changes.

For other offices, plexiglass dividers will be cheaper to install than automatic doors. And some safety measures are free, they just require a change in behavior. Bennett says his office is taking a cue from many grocery stores and creating one-way paths for walking to limit how often people cross each other.

These changes may not always be an option. Bennett imagines building codes will eventually require certain health and safety measures. There was a similar update after 9/11, he notes.

Whether it's by law or by choice, redesigning offices and workplaces will take money, which will be in short supply at many businesses. This could lead to multiple tiers of offices in terms of their attention to health safety.

Over time, prices will drop. Offices will catch up as they can, making smaller adjustments as budgets allow.

Employees will notice these delays, though, and many will not be happy with corporate foot-dragging. Workers in various fields have shown more interest in activism when their needs aren't addressed. And Bennett says office buildings, like stores and stadiums, must address these concerns. "If they're not safe, people won't use them," he says.

Mental Health Upgrades

Wearing a mask to get a cup of coffee and working with six feet and a plexiglass wall between you and the nearest colleague may not seem like the best experience. But there are benefits to post-COVID innovations that go beyond avoiding contagions.

"A lot of this should have, could have, been done just to make buildings safer and more efficient," Ein says. For instance, connecting a building's HVAC system to the app that opens doors for workers could lead to fewer instances of the air conditioner running at full blast when no one is around.

Though Bennett works in Dallas, he praises D.C.'s rooftop terrace culture, a side-effect, partially, of the limited height of buildings. He also points to the CityCenterDC shopping district, which is basically an open-air mall, as an example of what offices may start to look like.

Sun-filled, open-air workspaces not only help control the spread of germs, they're pleasant to be in. It's a direction designers were already moving in. In addition to the LEED standard for environmentally efficient buildings, architects also look toward livability standards, such as the Living Building Challenge and WELL, which take worker health into consideration.

And one of the biggest improvements may be among the cheapest: Remote work. Smith, with Bozzuto, says letting workers spend some workdays out of the office has advantages for both the workers and the company.

"This is a real opportunity for employers to really think about providing that flexibility as a benefit," she says. "What you get in return is tremendous amounts of loyalty, more retention."

Whenever it happens, the process of returning to work won't be easy. It may not be fast, and it may not be comfortable. Companies can do a lot to make the process smoother and less scary, whether that means letting someone work from home until their cubicle is ready or making sure there are a few extra sneeze guards in the conference room. The pandemic presents a lot of challenges. It also presents a chance — a chance for companies to think about how they can keep their workers not only safe, but comfortable, or even happy.

"It is an opportunity to really rethink how work it's done in your organization," Smith says. "It's an incredible moment for change and change management. And so we're really looking at this as a moment in time that we couldn't have ever dreamt of having. But now that we've had it, we're going to use it to make our company stronger and more resilient."

Questions or comments about the story?

WAMU 88.5 values your feedback.

From NPR station

WAMU 88.5