The office, as we knew it, is over.
When the time comes to return to in-person work, most of us will find a vastly different workplace — if we go back at all.
An environment where people from different social circles spend long days in close quarters, using shared facilities indoors, simply cannot exist in the era of COVID-19.
After a cluster of 97 cases appeared in a South Korean office building, public health officials realized just how easily the virus could spread in the workplace.
Researchers discovered that 94 cases were on the same floor, and 79 of those who fell ill sat in the same section of the office. All told, 44 per cent of the people working on that floor became sick.
Buildings will have to consider a multi-layered strategy to protect people inside, beginning with indoor heating and cooling systems.
“We have to employ some of these healthy building strategies,” explains Joseph Allen, an assistant professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He suggests “bringing in more fresh outdoor air to dilute the airborne contaminants and filter the recirculated air using high-efficiency filters.”
After that, offices will have to implement a long checklist of changes, beginning with the elevator.
There will be limits on how many people can ride at the same time, with marked-out spaces for people to stand in. Some buildings are already experimenting with touchless technology or foot pedals to remove points of contact in elevators.
The reception desk may be the place where employees and visitors face health checks or temperature screening. Beyond that point, everyone will almost certainly be required to wear a mask.
Inside the office, desks will be left unoccupied or rearranged to allow for two metres of separation.
High-walled cubicles or plexiglass shields may have to be introduced.
Any shared space, like a kitchen, break room or conference room could see access limited or be closed off entirely.
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So long to the office potluck.
Even the little things, like trinkets and family photos on desks, will likely have to disappear to make it easier for cleaning staff to sanitize one or more times per day.
Employees may even be asked to work in small groups that don’t interact with other groups to make it easier to isolate and remove individuals if there’s an outbreak of COVID-19 in the office.
“If you layer enough of these defences on top of each other, you get it to the point where (the risk) can become manageable, to a level where people can feel comfortable coming back into your building,” explains Allen.
At an office building in Falls Church, Va., a company called Pinkston has developed its own playbook for the pandemic era.
The company’s founder, Christian Pinkston, decided to invest in technology early on before any formal guidelines for offices were issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Almost all of Pinkston’s staff are still working from home, but he’s getting ready for the day they’re ready to come back.
“We wanted to do something that was realistic financially but we wanted to do as much as we could within that parameter to provide the safest possible environment,” explains Pinkston.
The changes start as soon as you step off the elevator, where employees and guests must pass through a device that looks similar to a metal detector at an airport.
The Cleanse Portal, as it’s known, bombards everyone with germ-killing far-UVC light as they pass through.
“They’re making sure that all the surfaces of their hands and clothes are exposed to the UV lighting,” says Pinkston as he pauses under the portal. “It’s cleansing them of any microbes, viruses, bacteria they might be carrying with them and anything they’re carrying as well.”
Once people step into the office, they’ll find the same far-UVC lighting installed in high-traffic areas like the kitchen and break room. There’s a UVC air scrubber whirring away inside the ceiling as well.
Less visible changes include sensors that monitor air quality and an invisible coating of antimicrobial titanium dioxide that has been sprayed across every surface.
“People have seen some of the things we’re doing, and they want to incorporate it into their offices as well,” says Pinkston.
These solutions are not foolproof and may prove to be too much for many companies to handle.
Limits on elevator ridership alone could be an unavoidable hurdle in getting employees back into the building.
New York’s One World Trade Center will only allow four riders in an elevator at a time. That’s a nightmare for the 8,000 workers spread across 90 floors.
Some companies may decide that the easiest solution is to limit the number of people in the office at any given time.
Staggering hours or alternating workdays could help accomplish that goal quickly.
Offices are generally empty outside of the usual nine-to-five workday and on weekends, so moving some workers to those unused hours could be a solution.
Canadian tech company Shopify has instead opted to simplify by declaring: “The era of office-centricity is over.” Employees will stay at home until 2021, and after that, the company’s office space will only be used for specific purposes.
Twitter is giving employees the option to work from home forever if they want to.
“I think one thing that (the pandemic) has taught people is that you work remotely and you can do it effectively,” explains Albert De Plazaola of the design firm Unispace. “Now, the things you can’t do effectively, I think that’s what we’re going to lean on the office for.”
The other hurdle is employee comfort.
Any strategy to make the office safe will have to be communicated clearly to help restore worker confidence.
People will want to know what’s being done to keep them safe.
Despite all the precautions he has taken, Pinkston has found his staff are in no rush to get back into the building.
The company did an anonymous survey of its staff.
“I was shocked by what I found,” Pinkston says. “They’re very much still avoiding unnecessary contact with people who aren’t family.”
Instead of a fixed reopening date, Pinkston expects to operate on an “as-you’re-comfortable basis” when he opens the doors again. That includes a plan to send text alerts to staff when outside visitors will be in the building, so they can decide whether or not they want to come in.
The most surprising change may be in how long all of these changes last. It’s quite likely office culture will be forever altered.
De Plazaola says research shows a large chunk of the workforce is rethinking its entire relationship with the office.
“We’re seeing that at least 40 to 60 per cent of employees want to work from home, even if there is a vaccine, one to three days a week,” he says.