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Experts say the office as we knew it is gone, and companies will need one-way hallways, sneeze guards, and other safety measures to let employees return. Here's what it could look like.

blitz office design covid-19
  • Scores of white-collar employees have acclimated to working from home instead of the office as the coronavirus disease has altered daily rhythms across the world.
  • Reopening dates for the workplace are not set in stone, but companies are still readying the office to welcome back employees in an age when physical space is crucial.
  • Some of the changes will likely include staggered workstations, sneeze guards, one-way corridors to minimize cross-traffic, and perhaps only coming into the office for group work.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a large focus of the office for companies in the San Francisco Bay Area was to establish a place of work that reflected company culture.
Open floor plans, cereal containers full of free snacks — anything to make the office stand out to recruit the best and brightest talent.
But the modern workplace will see some growing pains as the infectious coronavirus disease prompts many to rethink how we use the office.
Looking into the near future, the office may become a place for only collaborative work. Employers may have to factor in a potential second wave of the disease in the fall. And above all, companies are going to have to figure out how to make people feel safe.
"There's so much more than just putting up screens and disinfectants," CEO Melissa Hanley of design firm Blitz told Business Insider. "There's a human aspect of this that can't get lost in the conversation."
Business Insider spoke to 7 architecture firms in the San Francisco Bay Area about how they're helping clients prepare to reopen offices and welcome back employees who abandoned their desks in March to start working from home.
Here's what the office could look like moving forward — and how the COVID-19 global health crisis may permanently alter how people perceive the workplace.
SEE ALSO: Look inside the 'Tesla of eco-villages' that's aiming to meet the rising demand for sustainable living outside of dense major cities during the coronavirus pandemic

Shutdowns have been implemented across the world, and the San Francisco Bay Area was the first US region to do so on March 17.

Workers in the bay are coming up on week 8 of the shelter-in-place order, and it's expected to last through at least May.
A reopening phase announced by California Gov. Gavin Newsom includes good news for many white-collar workers that are pining for a return to professional normalcy: eventual office reopenings.
State leaders haven't announced a concrete date for reopening.

But the disease has been proven to easily transmit through dense office spaces.

As Business Insider's Holly Secon reported, the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention constructed a color-coded seating chart of a South Korean call center that showed how easily the disease could spread from person to person in a workplace setting.
Despite the lack of a hard reopening date, companies throughout the Bay Area are already scurrying to prep their offices for returning workers. It'll most likely happen before there's a vaccine for the disease, which means integrating physical distancing measures into office plans will be a must.
"It's going to be drastically different than when they left," Rapt Studio CEO David Galullo told Business Insider. The firm counts office designs for tech giants like Dropbox, Google, and LinkedIn in its repertoire.
"We don't go through something like this as a global society without things shifting about how we come together," Galullo said.

It's difficult to plan for the long term, so many clients are training their efforts on the short-term re-entry process.

A big part of that is gauging how employees feel about returning to work. The point is to improve the perception of well-being in the office, said Hanley of Blitz Studio, the firm behind Bay Area office designs for Skype, Zendesk, and Microsoft, among others.
"That's really the number one thing — folks are scared," Hanley told Business Insider. "They're scared to come back to the workplace."

Many clients don't have the capital budgets to support any major spending right now.

They don't have the capital to retrofit their offices, which Hanley said probably isn't the right move right now anyway. Nobody's looking to make wholesale changes to the office.
"The fundamentals of real estate economics — we don't suddenly have the cash to buy three times more space," Hanley said. "So if we're going to engage in social distancing, we have to think about it in a different way."
The most structural changes could be installing more sophisticated air filtration and HVAC systems to purge air on a nightly basis, design firm Snøhetta told Business Insider in an email.
But overall, the key right now is to keep things configurable, Hanley said. What employers need right now is going to be very different than what they may need in eight weeks. And in 12 to 18 months, the office may need a new slew of modifications.
"Whatever the new normal is, it's only going to be the new normal for a very brief period of time," Hanley said.

So what they're focusing on is counseling companies on how to quickly and efficiently "hack" or DIY their existing office spaces.

"What could we buy on Amazon that can get people back to work now?" Hanley said. It's the difference between a $50 investment versus completely redoing the floor plan.

Perhaps the reception desk is less for checking in and more of a home foyer, where you take off your coats and wash your hands.

Think of it as a mudroom, said Managing Director and Principal Randy Howder with Gensler, the firm behind Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters.
Low-touch or no-touch fixtures will need to be added throughout the space. Buttons, door handles — anything that could become a hot point of contact amongst workers would need to be rendered touchless.
Companies might take employees' temperatures upon arrival, and everyone will wear masks. But Primo Orpilla, co-founder and principal of Studio O+A, said it's important to still make people feel comfortable.
"How do we tell our people that we're making them safe but not make it feel like you're going through immigration at [San Francisco International Airport]?" Orpilla said.

Workstations will be spaced further apart — you won't have a desk buddy right next to you.

There's also the option to implement soft architecture for work stations. That could mean placing panels, or sneeze guards, atop desks that allow for more confinement, Galullo said.

Workers will also have to make sure that their desk is clear of clutter and personal items every day so that cleaning crews can come through — meaning the usual myriad trinkets, dog photos, and children's drawings that usually decorate desks won't be part of office life for a while, Orpilla said.

Conference room density may have to be cut down, with chairs spaced six feet apart, Howder said.

Traffic flow and direction may need to be considered, such as ensuring workers only move about the office in a clockwise rotation to prevent cross-traffic.

We might see a shift to single-occupancy restrooms, where only one employee — with a swipe of a keycard — can go in at once, Carrie Byles, partner at Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, told Business Insider.
And even with a high degree of cleanliness in the bathroom, Orpilla said that may not be enough to satisfy some. Workers may not feel comfortable going to the bathroom at the office, so a mass exodus could take place in the early afternoon following lunch, with many choosing to use their home restroom instead and finishing out the workday there.
The workday could end earlier than usual anyway to allow cleaning crews ample time to conduct the kind of rigorous wipe-down needed, Orpilla said.
There may be graphics on the floor reminding people to social distance too, Orpilla said. Signage would be posted promoting the best hygiene practices. Hand sanitizer stations would be set up at various points throughout the office.
Eventually, high-tech proximity sensors could monitor employee interaction in the office as well.

Robust snack assortments — a longtime Bay Area mainstay — may not have a place in the foreseeable future.

"All my clients are not opening up their micro kitchens or break areas yet because they're not quite sure how to deal with the tension of all the foods and all the different grab-and-go stuff that is very Bay Area," Orpilla said.
Many companies might opt for prepackaged snacks and food instead.

Then there's the actual structuring of workers for reentry. Moving forward, offices may be more designated for collaborative group work.

"If that's the case, let's start to separate the functions around that and treat the office more as a resource and almost as a cultural membership," Hanley said.
Galullo said most of their clients are developing plans that won't have everyone showing up on the first day.
There may be staggered waves of employees into the office, with rolling schedules such as a rotation for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Workers may arrange their week accordingly, planning heads-down individual tasks for the days they work from home and group projects for when they go into the office.
Going back into the office could be a good option for those whose home life offers too many distractions. But alternatively, working parents may not have the option to come back to the office, since it's unclear when schools and childcare centers will reopen.

There may be office cohorts or "neighborhoods" of 30 coworkers that always work together. Going so would establish a social contract and a level of trust so you know everyone who you're around.

And "so if one of those people tested positive, you just shut that floor down or you shut down that pod — you're not taking out the whole company that's working there," Byles said.
While it's difficult to predict anything moving forward, Hanley said in two to three months, another series of modifications may need to be made.
"I think that's where everyone's sort of holding their breath and saying, 'Are we going to see a spike in fall?'" she said.
For that reason — a potential spike in the autumn months — Greg Mottola, principal at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, said a lot of their tech clients aren't exactly jumping at the opportunity to reopen just yet. Remote work was already deeply ingrained in the tech industry, where productivity has long been valued over simple office attendance.
"Everything's in the cloud for them," Orpilla said of tech workers.
It's not as much of a priority for them to be in the office as it is for other industries, such as those working in the more traditional finance sector.

There are a few immovable roadblocks, however, such as the question of elevator use.

In San Francisco's office scene, for example, many companies have set up shop in glistening, towering skyscrapers — the kinds of high-rises accessible by elevators, which involves squeezing people into close quarters to travel up to their floor.
A solution could be to rely more heavily on stair use and making stairwells one-directional so you don't have cross-traffic, Byles said.
Another plan of action could be having people on, say, floors 1 through 4 use the stairs and people on floors 5 through 8 use the elevator. One specific elevator could also be designated to take people down to the ground level and out of the building, Orpilla said.
Maybe reinstituting to a larger degree of elevator attendants would be fruitful, whose sole job is to facilitate button-pushing, Hanley said.

And every firm that we spoke to agrees: one of the biggest challenges is how to get employees from their homes to the office.

Safeguarding the office against the infectious coronavirus disease — such as ensuring proper social distancing and installing hand sanitizer dispensers — is one thing. But getting employees from their homes to the workplace is a whole other beast.
"That's the hardest thing," Hanley said.
Especially if every worker in the office relies upon public transit — there's really no way around that.
Transit in the Bay Area has remained open for essential workers who are unable to shelter in place throughout the order, albeit operators have been forced to cut back substantially on service.
Some of Gensler's clients are discussing a satellite strategy, where if you're closer to, say, a company office in Oakland, you can go there instead of one further away in San Francisco, Howder said.

That barrier, coupled with a slew of other factors, is why working from home might become part of a company's real estate portfolio moving forward, Hanley said.

Thousands have hunkered down and acclimated to working from their homes. Now, people are joking that since we're getting so used to remote work, that will be the end of the workplace, Byles said.
"It reminds me of a person I know who exclaimed after the dot com crash that he never liked the internet anyway," Byles said.
But Byles, as well as others, say that the physical office environment is not dead — it will simply evolve.
"The importance of bringing together people of different backgrounds is largely unplanned conversations, and spontaneous innovation is what drives our economy," Byles said.
There should be space allocated for serendipity in the workplace. And besides that, many look to the office for a sense of belonging, Galullo said.
"They want to feel like they're not alone and that they're working towards something with a group of people," Galullo said. "The workplace has always been a great vehicle for that."

As for the ever-trendy open office floor plan, it's not dead either, according to designers.

Orpilla said the open office floor plan was always about providing choice for employees, and if it was done correctly, it's actually already inherently socially distancing-friendly.
"Open plan was never about just maximizing the plate," Orpilla said. It was about making sure there were different types of spaces for people who have different types of work tasks on their plate at any given time.
The open office floor plan has been embraced by companies in the Valley, as well as outside of it. It's long fostered the idea of flat hierarchy.
That ideology has only been magnified by the pandemic and by resorting to video conferencing to stay connected with remote work — there's no corner office in Zoom, Howder said.
Neither will we see a return to the office days of yore, with individual offices and closed doors.
"Density has been a strategy for firms for a long time, to make the best use of space," Hanley said. "That is a premium, and that means open office. You can't have private offices, it just doesn't work."

However, many of us have grown accustomed to working from home, and that's likely to leave a lasting impression.

"The longer we work from home, the more new habits and new ways of working will be there to stay," Howder said. "We can have the best of both worlds going forward."

So we will likely usher in a hybrid work movement: equal parts physical office time and work from home.

Office culture was already leaning toward a more diversified workspace — the coronavirus pandemic may just be fast-tracking it, Byles said.
Employees will be able to choose for themselves how and where they work. For super commuters who devote hours round-trip to and from the office, the saved time might be a contributing factor.
We may also see an "urban flight" of city dwellers to more affordable suburban and rural locales with less expensive costs of living.

Clients have already started supplying employees with more substantial work from home kits, including desks with adjustable height and improved broadband internet.

"If your expectation is that your employee is spending time at the home office, then you've got to help them out with that," Hanley said.
This would also mean erasing the stigmas associated with people working from home, such as when an employee is sick.
"I started working in the mid-eighties — kind of the Mad Men days — and everybody came to work," Byles said. "Even if you're on your deathbed, you came and you worked long hours just to prove how dedicated to work you were."
Another possible repercussion could be people — now hyperaware of personal space — may be more standoffish with colleagues, Byles said.
There very well may be permanent cultural ramifications of this global remote work experiment. Or, Hanley said, we'll return to what is familiar.
"We're going to go back to the way we were because, like anything else on this planet, we're going to just kind of go back to what's comfortable," Hanley said.

* This article was originally published here
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