Envisioning the Post-COVID Workplace

Paul Gillin

Call it the revenge of the cubicle.

As people cautiously return to the office in the coming months, they will find a workplace transformed by COVID-19. While we can only imagine how strategies for safe offices will evolve over time, there’s no question that we need to prepare for a world in which social distancing is part of daily life. Even after the worst of COVID-19 has passed, the impact on our collective consciousness about the risks of community transmission will permanently change our behavior.

Extended Telecommuting Plans

For one thing, the office of the future may have a lot fewer people in it. Millions of people who never worked from home before have now had a taste of the experience and many will like it enough to make telecommuting part of their routine at least a few days a week. Employers, 44% of whom didn’t have work-from-home policies before the lockdowns started, now have processes in place to accommodate them.

Work-from-home policies have both safety and cost benefits. Limiting office time to every other day, for example, could enable employers to reduce the amount of office space they need and more easily accommodate social distancing requirements. Managers may also find that productivity improves. One provider of secure networking services reported that home-bound U.S. workers using its service remained logged in, on average, three hours longer per day than at the office.

A More Scheduled and Regimented Workspace

In some ways, the office of the future may bear a striking resemblance to the office of the past. As the open office concept has gained traction over the past couple of decades, fixtures like walled offices and cubicles have given way to large shared spaces with desks often packed closely together in the name of teamwork.

Many of those old partitions may now be dragged out of storage as desks are pushed apart and physical barriers put back in place. Floor-mounted social distancing signs will caution office workers about standing too close to their colleagues. The workplace will become more scheduled and regimented. In the same way that many supermarkets have adopted one-way aisles to minimize congestion, offices will adopt fixed routing protocols such as clockwise movement.

Continued Social Distancing

Office managers and space planners will need to take a fresh look at shared areas such as meeting rooms, restrooms, cafeterias and break rooms. Because these facilities often can’t be expanded, access controls such as keyed entry may be needed to limit the number of simultaneous occupants. Packed elevators will become a thing of the past as occupancy limits are imposed. People will queue in lunch lines six feet apart. We will spend more time waiting.

Meetings will have fewer participants with perhaps half of the attendees connecting via videoconference. Additional doors will be needed on conference rooms so participants can enter without passing each other too closely. People may even reconsider the need for many meetings at all, given the risks. During the pandemic they found that connecting from their desktop was faster and more efficient.

The Touchless Office

Managers planning for the post-pandemic office will also need to reconsider community touchpoints. Objects like filing cabinets, door handles, copy machines, faucets and coffee pots have suddenly become breeding grounds for infection and will require, at the very least, more rigorous disinfection. Paper documents will be digitized to enable quick access from desktop computers. Technologies like ultraviolet light-based disinfection, which have been on the margins, may go mainstream. Expect voice response systems to replace elevator buttons and motion sensors to displace light switches.

The workplace will never again be quite the same, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many of the changes outlined here will give people more space, greater flexibility and enhanced productivity. To get a look at how one commercial real estate firm is preparing for the future, visit Cushman & Wakefield’s 6 Feet Office project.

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