Since the pandemic sent workers home last year, numerous changes have been made to office buildings to keep the coronavirus from spreading. Now as companies prepare to bring workers back, experts say more changes are on the way.
Expect expanded meeting rooms and fewer in-person workspaces, such as changes fueled by the success of working from home. Companies like Google, Microsoft and Walmart have already announced proposals for hybrid work models that allow employees to continue working remotely at least a few days a week.
As a result of these new regulations, companies may need less office space and some have already needed less real estate, according to a survey by consulting firm PwC. Target announced earlier this month that it was giving up office space in downtown Minneapolis, and in September sporting goods retailer REI sold its newly constructed headquarters in Bellevue, Wash.
“We’re really at a turning point,” said Meena Krenek, interior designer at Perkins + Will, an architecture firm that is innovating offices, including its own, for new ways of working.
Last spring, when the lockdowns had not yet been completed, landlords and tenants prepared to return to the office in the summer and fall. The desks were pulled six feet apart and plexiglass barriers were installed between them. Disposable arrows were stenciled on the corridor floors, chairs removed from the conference rooms, and elaborate choreography developed to determine how and when the teams would return to avoid overcrowding.
Then many workers just stayed at home. As the pandemic dragged on and people got the hang of it, many discovered that it was possible to be productive when parked on living room couches or in garden chairs.
Now that the company executives are planning to return to the office, it is not only safety measures but also the new work regulations that are driving discussions about the post-pandemic workplace. According to a new survey by KayoCloud, a platform for real estate technology, more than 80 percent of companies rely on a hybrid model in which employees are in the office three days a week.
Workplaces are being redesigned for activities that benefit from face-to-face interaction, including working together on projects and training employees to promote a company’s culture and identity.
The public areas will be enlarged and furnished with furniture that can be moved if necessary. Steelcase and Knoll, suppliers of office furniture, report strong interest in mobile tables, carts and partitions.
But as the space required for collecting increases, the fate of your own personal lawn in the office – a desk decorated with family photos, a couple of filing cabinets – hangs in the balance. Why, business leaders ask, should someone who is in the office a day or two a week need a seat that is empty the rest of the time?
In some cases, personal desks are being replaced by hotel workstations, also known as hot desks, which can be used by anyone who needs a place to sit down for a day.
In the early months of the pandemic, when the coronavirus was believed to spread via contaminated surfaces, hot desks received a tough no from office users. However, this attitude has softened with the realization that the virus is mainly transmitted through the air. Protocols for wiping table tops before and after use have become the norm. So it’s important to reserve a hot desk in advance rather than just showing up and securing a free seat.
Workers have often resisted losing their personal desks when businesses tried to reduce their real estate footprint, but they may now be more amenable to the idea when the payoff is the ability to skip the commute and work from home.
“If I’d interviewed people a year ago, they would have said they definitely need three filing cabinets and a bookcase,” said Andrea Vanecko, director of architecture firm NBBJ. “Now there is a completely different answer.”
Conference rooms are also restarted. In the past, these rooms were based on the idea that people gather in person. A large screen on a wall can be used for presentations or to have an executive appear in a different location as a cameo.
However, some employees are constantly switching to remote work, and companies are puzzled over how to get the same level of participation as those who are physically present. There are even early discussions about using artificial intelligence to conjure up holographic representations of employees who are not on site but could still take a seat at the table.
Currently, some companies continue to use their laptops as personal attendants so that remote workers can see everyone on their zoom screens. This is to help maintain “a sense of equality that we expected,” said Peter Knutson, chief strategy officer of A + I, a design firm.
Devices that combine 360-degree cameras, microphones, and speakers are placed on a table or tripod to improve sound and visibility. In the future, these technologies will likely be built into meeting places and the number of screens increased, turning the conference room into a “zoom room,” Ms. Krenek said.
Likewise, some phone booths – the closet-sized pods used in open plan offices to provide a place for employees to make private calls – are giving way to video conference booths that some manufacturers have introduced with built-in screens.
Screens are displayed elsewhere. One near the coffee bar or at a coffee table could enable on-site employees to virtually meet colleagues who work remotely for a latte or lunch.
And digital whiteboards are likely to become increasingly popular so that employees at home can see what is being written in real time.
Changes to offices to protect against the coronavirus are still in effect. Emergency measures may go away when the pandemic loosens its hold, but others will stay here.
In lobbies, floor decals can be two meters apart, “just until people get used to them,” said Natalie Engels, director at Gensler, an architecture firm. Signs that had multiplied during the pandemic – encouragement of “self-cleaning” elevator buttons and virus zapping technologies like ionization and ultraviolet light – will eventually be removed.
However, moving around an office building is increasingly becoming a hands-free feature supported by mobile apps, sensors, and voice controls, even as reluctance to touch surfaces subsides.
With sensors, employees can enter a turnstile and call an elevator with a wave of the hand. Landlords who haven’t invested in such systems have experimented with foot pedals to activate elevators. Buttons on the walls outside of the toilets can be pressed with an elbow, eliminating the need to touch door handles. Some companies add foot operated door openers.
The coronavirus has drawn attention to air quality in a potentially permanent way. Outdoor spaces – roofs, patios, and courtyards – were popular before the pandemic and grew in popularity as fresh air went from a beauty to a necessity.
In some cases, landlords have adjusted HVAC systems to increase the amount of outside air being pumped in. They’re also upgrading filters to trap smaller particles in the air.
Some measures are anchored in leases, said Geoffrey F. Fay, a real estate attorney at Pullman & Comley. But landlords do things like this proactively, he added, as they try to make offices as alluring as possible when tenants are wondering if they still need to rent space at all.
“The landlords are realizing that we are on the brink of change,” he said. “You want employees to feel as comfortable as they come back to the office.”