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So, what happens when it’s time to get back to the office?

April 26, 2020

By Angie Lee

The current pandemic has set the stage for a giant experiment. Is remote work here to stay? And who will go back to the office first?

The first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak is beginning to pass and state governments are now reviewing current restrictions and planning next steps. It may soon be time to go back to the office, but what will that look like? Unfortunately, there isn’t a cut and dry answer. Let’s take a look at the short- and long-term considerations for returning to our previous work environments. Reducing office capacity and fostering employee confidence in a clean workspace will be one of the key first steps:

Take a staggered approach to reopening

  • Evaluate the population of your office and identify who needs to return right away to the in-office setting. These will be the first employees allowed back into the office, while the rest continue working from home for the time being. This approach supports continued social distancing
  • With not all seats in the office filled, consider rearranging the seating chart in open offices to maintain the recommended six feet between each person. Those with private offices can practice social distancing by keeping their doors closed
  • Remove some of the chairs in conference rooms to reduce potential occupancy
  • Work with building management on a strategy for security check-ins and elevator use for those in multi-story buildings.

Encourage cleanliness

  • Provide hand sanitizer dispensers in high-traffic areas and common areas like lobbies cafes, collaboration spaces, conference rooms, and phone rooms
  • For areas with sinks, post recommendations from the CDC for proper hand washing techniques.

Re-route traffic

  • Most office corridors tend to be less than six feet across, making social distancing difficult if not impossible. Take a look at the floorplan and revise traffic patterns in busy corridors to be one-way, like grocery stores across the country are doing now.

Step up nightly cleaning routines

  • For employees coming back to the office, hygiene and employee safety is crucial. How can employees be assured their workspace has been cleaned at the end of each day? Work with your property manager or facilities crew on developing a system for raising awareness around cleaning protocols. For example, nightly cleaning crews might leave a small placard at each workspace, with the date and time of cleaning and the crew member’s signature.

In the long term, clients and building owners will reassess their responses to the virtualization of work, and how buildings and workspaces are designed to support tenant health:

Remote work is likely here to stay

  • The current pandemic has set the stage for a giant experiment—in more ways than one. For the workplace, the concept of working remotely has been a hot topic for years. Now that nearly the entire office-based workforce has been ordered to work virtually, the industry was forced to improvise. Have workers been more productive or less productive? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: remote work is likely going to be much more widely embraced.

Digital transformation is in the driver’s seat

  • The sudden need to virtualize our work has sped up digital transformation in ways that no one could have imagined. Consider telemedicine: what was once a fringe benefit is now practically mainstream
  • The same applies to the office setting, where in-person meetings are now held on platforms like Zoom, Skype, or BlueJeans—and everyone is welcome, including pets and children.

A breath of fresh air

  • A big part of this pandemic is the battle against an enemy that we can’t see. As face masks become the new norm, so will improvements to indoor air quality
  • Will offices of the future have operable windows to allow occupants to get fresh air? They might; far before the pandemic, there was a wide interest in indoor air quality and natural ventilation.

Will we return to the old model of private offices? Will conference rooms and open office space expand to allow for greater personal space? A new interest in remote work and leaps and bounds made in the virtualization of work have set us on an exciting new course. The future of the workplace will likely include a combination of virtual and in-office work. And as designers, this is the perfect time to reimagine the office of the new future.

This is the first in a multi-part blog series on how workplaces can respond and adapt to the new normal following COVID-19. Next Up: People and Technology with Angie Lee and Tod Moore.

  • Angie Lee

    For 30 years, Angie has led teams to deliver workplace strategy and headquarter design.

    Contact Angie
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