How COVID-19 will change the office space

Anthony Shell · May 13, 2020 · Short URL:

The open office may be dead, while a war will wage for who has the cleanest office

It's almost head-spinning just how quickly the coronavirus changed our society, including our ability to go out and do, well, pretty much anything at the moment, but also how and where we get our work done.

In February, the number of Americans working remotely was 4.7 million, or just under 3.5 percent of the population. By early April, a Gallup poll found that over 60 percent of Americans now work from home. It's likely the shift away from the office, and the typical 9 to 5 job, was going to happen anyway at some point for a number of people, as things were already trending in that direction: there was a nearly 160 percent surge in remote work from 2005 to 2017.

Most interestingly, though, is how much people like having the option to not be tied to an office, with Gallup finding that 59 percent saying that they want to work remotely as much as possible, compared to 41 percent who want to return to working at the office as much as they did previously. And research has shown that 80 percent of workers would choose a job with more flexible hours if they could.

None of these are particularly new developments but COVID-19 has fast-tracked all of these trends to the forefront, massively changing our idea of the office and the future of work. 

The death of the open office

While it might not seem like it right now, eventually we will, slowly but surely, come out of this crisis. And when we do, the office as we know will not be the same as we left it. 

In the short term, it’s not hard to predict some of the noticeable changes we’ll see, including how workers are expected to interact with each other, how offices are laid out and how they keep their work safe. For example, when people finally do return to some semblance of normal, they’ll likely have staggered work schedules, with employees either coming in on different days, or maybe some employees working at different times of day. At least for now, it’s very unlikely that the entire office will be coming and going at the same time every day. 

We could also see the implementation of one way walkways in the office, meaning employees won’t be able to go both directions, instead having to rotate clockwise or counterclockwise. Perhaps some ideas seem a bit more farfetched, but these are unprecedented times we’re living in. 

The most important changes, though, will come down to how offices are laid out, with the virus, at least for now, reversing years of trends around how workers have been expected to collaborate. What I’m saying is we’re going to see the return of the cubicle. 

Cubicles, those now outdated little boxes that workers were once forced to work in, are a relic at this point; they’re something you’re most likely to see in movies like Office Space, where the whole idea was how soul-crushing they supposedly were. Instead, companies realized they could densify their work environments, packing more employees into a work environment in order to save costs. Thanks to COVID, though, that type of work environment is simply no longer feasible, since employees aren’t going to want to be right next to their co-worker without a barrier between them. So say hello to having three walls again! At least now you’ll have a place to hang up your calendar and your Dilbert cartoons. 

That’s all going to happen in the short term, anyway; after a vaccine is created, and coronavirus fears have subsided, the concerns over spacing out an office will largely be not needed anymore, and we may very well go back to those high density work environments. Or maybe not, as one of the things I’ve been tracking over the last year or so is the death of this open office plan. It's been shown that people need community and collaboration, which makes remote work difficult to fully implement, but they also need appropriate space for quiet. A study done in 2018, which asked 4,000 workers how they felt about open offices, found that over 30 percent felt self conscious of being overheard by co-workers, 16 percent said they felt their health had declined, and 13 percent said they wanted to leave their jobs because of having that kind of office layout. 

Once again, COVID may simply have the effect of pushing us quicker where we were already going. The industry was already backing away from the open office plan even before COVID-19 came around, and now this may just be the death knell. 

Mental health in the new work environment

When the office reopens, there won’t only be physical changes to contend with, but psychological ones as well.

This ties back into the piece I wrote last month about changes in office space that are meant to be beneficial to the mental health of workers. That was before all of these social distancing and stay-at-home orders had even been put into place; that’s how fast everything has changed and, unfortunately, a lot of what I wrote about then may no longer be feasible. The idea of everyone being in the open, about the C-suite coming into the open office and about being in light, bright, airy and naturally ventilated spaces, may be really challenged going forward because of the virus. 

If that is the case, then it’s really going to be on the office managers and leaders and partners in commercial real estate to step up to the plate to make sure that their employees are handling these changes. They need to lead with kindness when people first return to the office, and they will need to protect employee mental health, armed with the knowledge that there's a lot of fatigue and some individuals will be struggling. Employees are feeling isolated and, when we return to the office, those feelings will be alleviated to a certain degree due to all the changes I mentioned earlier. That may be challenging for some employees’ mental health. 

What’s really important, though, is that employees feel like they are being heard. Now, more than ever, it’s going to be critical that we make employees feel like their voices matter, even if they’re six feet away, through a piece of plexiglass. It’s critical at this point that we know that there’s going to be weirdness when we return to the office, it’s not going to be the way that it was when we left, and we need to be there for each other as we return to the workspace.

The war for cleanest office

In my previous piece, I also mentioned a “war for amenities” that has been taking place between competing office buildings, especially in the Bay Area. Basically, landlords have been trying to offer the best mediation room or gym facility or bike room in order to lure the biggest companies to their spaces. And that was working, until suddenly those types of communal spaces became taboo. 

Landlords are going to have to have something else to offer in this new world, and that very well could mean a new type of competition over who can offer the safest building in terms of viral outbreaks or pandemics. That might mean having the most frequent and most thorough cleaning and janitorial services, which landlords are most frequently changing their heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) filters, and which offices are providing employees and visitors with masks and hand sanitizer.

The buildings and landlords and office managers that are going to be most successful will be the ones who adopt and implement those practices that allow employees to feel the safest and cleanest in their environments.

Don’t expect these things to necessarily be put into actual law, though; it’s much likely to be something akin to the US Green Building Council (USGBC), which gives credits for buildings that are environmentally friendly. I suspect there will be a similar group that emerges with a similar type of rating system, this time for how clean the building is. 

Once that rating system is created, it is possible that the city or state governments could enforce or require buildings to retrofit to a certain standard, but governments traditionally like to use rating systems that are already created, so it’s unlikely that the government would require building to use a certain level of filtration systems. 

The office isn’t going anywhere 

What I’ve mostly talked about here are the short-term effects of coronavirus on the office; the truth is that nobody really knows what the long-term effects of the coronavirus might be. My personal opinion is that, once a vaccine is finally created, the way we work will largely go back to the way it was before. That’s because, for the vast majority of companies out there, while you can have your employees work from home, there is a certain degree of lost efficiency from their workforce.

Even if some things do change, if more people start working remotely, or they don’t come into the office every day, this is still not going to be the end of the office because of one simple fact: we, as human beings, are drawn towards connection and community. That’s what made us evolve being from hunters and gatherers to wanting to build families and towns and cities. It’s innate in human nature that people, by and large, want to be social, and that’s why the business world has grown to what it is as a result of traditionally having offices.  

Not even COVID-19 can change that.

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