Say hello to the high-walled cubicles made famous in the 1999 film, “Office Space,” because they’re about to make a comeback.
For years, offices have crammed more employees into smaller spaces, while creating an open collaborative atmosphere.
“Think about tech companies that are highly dense and working in those ‘benching work stations’ side by side,” said Gable Clarke, director of interior design at the architecture firm SGA. Now with Covid-19, things like “benching” are the opposite of what employees want to face as they return to work.
As companies plan how to bring their workforce together again in the office, numerous calculations are being made to provide an environment that will keep workers safe, healthy and productive. While some of that strategy involves testing and monitoring employees to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, companies are also thinking about the actual physical design of offices.
“First and foremost, people need to feel safe,” said Janet Pogue McLaurin, principal and global workplace leader at Gensler, a global design and architecture firm. “We’re looking at the entryways to buildings. How do they start to space apart? How do they navigate the lobby? Is there temperature sensing?”
Her firm has created software to show clients how to start “de-densifying” the office.
Both designers say changes may include:
- Wider corridors with one-way foot traffic
- Better air filtration
- Touchless elevator controls
- Antimicrobial materials in new construction
- Videoconferencing even within the office to avoid the conference room
“Perhaps you divide the workplace in half, and half the office can come in on Monday and Wednesday, half of the office can come in on Tuesday and Thursday,” said Clarke. Alternating days would come with alternating desks.
Concept image for an redesigned office space after coronavirus.
One other suggested change is to do away with designated desks filled with family photos and personal items.
“Janitorial staff often cannot clean desks with personal items on them, as it’s a liability,” said Armen Vartanian, vice president of Okta’s global workplace services. “It will likely be more sanitary to have open desks and workstations —equipped with the latest technology — that employees can pick each day and can be cleaned afterwards.”
Toyota said on its earnings call that it will install plexiglass barriers between bathroom sinks. Many office bathrooms already have touchless sinks and soap dispensers, but what about the toilet stall door?
“We can start thinking through even incorporating voice activation to open doors,” said Pogue McLaurin.
And get ready for the health cop. Companies will have to deputize someone to be in charge of making sure employees follow the new rules about distancing.
“Enforcement becomes important because it’s human nature to sort of want to congregate together,” said Clarke.
There is also the issue of whether working from home will become more commonplace.
Research by Gensler shows some workers would like to continue working from home.
“Some of the early results are telling us that people feel incredibly productive at home,” said Pogue McLaurin. She expects that will continue, at least part time, which could have negative real estate implications for landlords.
In the short term, however, companies may need all the space they can get as they put distance between employees.
“My take is that the office is here to stay,” said Clarke. “There’s a lot of challenges that come with working from home … people are social creatures.”
But, she adds, it won’t be the same.
“I think the communal M&M bowl is off limits for a while.”