There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a shift in the world order, leaving a permanent mark on every aspect of our lives. The new coronavirus has already changed how we relate to and communicate with each other, and it has also changed the way we work.
Before COVID-19, remote work was a trend that stirred a lot of debate. Many employees, particularly those in IT, were already embracing it, but not everyone was convinced. Following the lockdown and stay-at-home orders this spring, companies across the board had to adapt, and many businesses realized that it was a good fit. As a result, major corporations like Twitter and Facebook announced they would be allowing their employees to work from home permanently if they wanted to. Even global financial institutions like Morgan Stanley jumped on the remote work bandwagon during the pandemic.
Working from home will surely become the norm for many professionals; however, there are still those looking forward to going to the office. Businesses in specific industries can’t afford to or are not able to let their employees work from home, so physical offices are still a necessity. Nonetheless, offices will never be the same after the pandemic, and landlords will need to make some drastic changes to ensure everyone stays safe.
Making minimum changes for maximum impact
As restrictions begin to lift gradually, businesses are gearing up for a return to the office and preparing their office spaces for the new normal. However, there’s no telling how this pandemic will continue to evolve, so further measures and rules will likely follow.
The uncertainty concerning the future of work means landlords have to come up with short-term, immediate solutions that don’t require a massive budget. Still, these changes need to ensure that all precautions are followed to contain the coronavirus spread in workplaces.
Many of the measures are apparent: installing hand sanitizers everywhere in the office, banning outside visitors from entering the workplace, making sure all surfaces and spaces are regularly disinfected, and limiting the number of workers in the office at the same time. Minimizing exposure to the new coronavirus and maintaining social distancing in the office is the number one priority as offices reopen.
Cushman & Wakefield came up with the concept of the Six Feet Office, which implies that offices need to be six feet apart to protect employees from the virus. This design would require a significant seating rearrangement to space out the desks in the office. Businesses need to adopt a hybrid work style, allowing some employees to work from home, or coming up with shifts, where workers would come to the office in rotation.
Office perks, a thing of the past
Over the past years, companies in creative industries have made it a priority to offer as many perks to their employees as possible. We’ve all seen pictures of amenity-rich offices that featured beer on tap, nap pods, game rooms, coffee bars, ping pong tables, informal lounging areas, and fully equipped kitchens. These office perks are now a thing of the past, as the priority is to limit employee contact as much as possible and to respect social distancing measures. There will likely be no more birthday lunches, bring-your-pet-to-work days, casual Fridays, or team building events, at least for the time being.
The parts of the office dedicated to amenities and informal gatherings can be used to space out employee desks and allow a higher number of people to come into the office. They could also be used to create private areas where employees could go to take private calls or interviews or focus on challenging tasks without distractions.
Informal gatherings should be avoided to contain the virus; therefore, kitchens and break rooms will likely disappear for a while. Instead, some companies will opt for a grab-and-go meal system to limit prolonged contact and exposure. Outside visitors will probably be banned from entering the office, and human resources departments will need to limit the number of in-person interviews they conduct.
The new normal in the workplace
Reopening the economy will by no means be a return to normalcy, and all industries will need to adapt to the new reality. Office design trends will shift to focus more on employee health and on limiting contact with surfaces as much as possible. As a result, new technologies and innovative concepts are likely to emerge, to solve the problems landlords and building owners face.
One of the most crucial aspects that building managers and landlords will need to focus on will be ventilation. Many buildings in New York City are in dire need of an upgrade and are still relying on window units. Building owners will need to invest massively in proper HVAC and ventilation systems to contain the new coronavirus and protect employees from future pandemics. Most office buildings nowadays have become sealed, temperature-controlled units. Developers have to focus more on air quality and include more operable, openable windows to ensure ventilation.
Other new features that are likely to appear in offices across the world will include hands-free door openers, touchless or phone-activated elevators, disinfection and temperature-scanning areas, and plenty of partitions and sneeze guards. Workers will be forced to embrace minimalism in the office, eliminating trinkets, piles of books, folders, or any personal items, to make desks easier to clean.
The end of the open office?
The open office layout was losing ground even before the COVID-19 pandemic. What was initially a concept that aimed to foster collaboration and communication gradually became frustrating for employees. The constant coming-and-going and the continuous noise in open offices can be mentally draining for many, impeding workplace productivity. Not to mention that viruses spread a lot more rapidly when there’s no delimitation between workers.
Personal space in the office has been shrinking over the years, to the point where privacy almost became extinct. Companies even embraced concepts like hot-desking, where employees are no longer assigned their own desks but can rotate and use different desks depending on the task at hand. Now, as employees are required to keep six feet apart, and contact is to be limited, hot-desking and desk-sharing will likely become obsolete concepts.
Layouts will not revert to private offices
The social distancing measures required in the workplace do not mean that layouts will revert to private offices or cubicles. Instead, offices will be spaced out, and partitions will be installed between departments, while transit areas and hallways will be expanded. Some landlords or business owners might set up signs to ensure employees keep the appropriate distance and require everyone to follow a clockwise trajectory throughout the office.
Conference rooms will require proper ventilation and disinfection, and the number of people allowed to participate will be limited. The maximum number of people allowed in elevators will also be reduced, while reception areas could be turned into office’ mudrooms.’ Here, employees could leave their coats, have their temperature taken, and disinfect their hands before heading to their desks.
These are just some of the changes that we might see in offices after the reopening. Yet, the pandemic’s evolution is unpredictable, and more measures might be necessary to ensure the safety and health of everyone in the office. For now, landlords and business owners have to be cautious, take all the measures required for a safe reopening, and be quick to adapt to their employees’ needs.