The trajectory of the modern office remains an open question

This article was originally published on RE Journals.

At this moment, millions of American office employees are working from kitchen tables and couches as the global COVID-19 pandemic leaves many sheltering in place. Once that mandate lifts and we once again venture out of our homes, will the office we’ve come to know ever be the same?

One unresolved question is how employers will respond to this sudden experiment with working from home. Will firms that had been reluctant to it in the past be more amenable to the possibility after social distancing? Much of that depends on how the employees themselves respond to the change, and what productivity looks like.

“For me and I think for a lot of people, working from home is very hard right now, though I’m not sure how much of that is from the social isolation itself,” said Eric Nolin, managing principal, project management at Cresa. “I personally am less productive at home because it’s more distracting. In some ways, distractions in the office tend to still be work related and help you collaborate.”

Once we start to get a handle on the pandemic, different organizations and their employees will likely take different strategies. In seeking out small victories during social distancing, there is one benefit: no one currently has a long commute packed in with strangers. Perhaps we’ll see some type a hybrid approach as employees work from home in the morning and then take a lightly populated train or bus at mid-day for an afternoon of meetings.

It will also be interesting to see if the trends of the recent past continue after the pandemic. Workplaces have become denser in recent years, yielding smaller footprints to each individual desk in lieu of more collaborative spaces.

Speculating about what changes we may see in the office of the future, Tom Zurowski, AIA, founding principal of Eastlake Studio, collaborated with the firm’s other principals—Christina Brown, NCIDQ, LEED AP ID+C; Kevin Kamien, AIA, NCARB and Jon Salzmann, AIA, LEED AP ID+C.

“In a recession, if not a depression, we don’t see everyone moving to private offices, but we do see people working away from their desks more,” the Eastlake team said. “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that people crave social interaction, and Zoom will never replace in-person meetings and collaboration.”

In all likelihood, workplaces will continue to emphasize cooperation, especially for those business that work in teams. However, densities may decrease, and personal space may become a higher priority. Reorienting workstations from benching to more of a 90-degree rotation can be done in the same six-by-six-foot area, for example, and employees wouldn’t be in each other’s face.

Expect to see more investments (once budgets aren’t constrained) in technological infrastructure that make open offices and meeting spaces more conducive for plug-and-play and allow employees to effectively work remotely.

Another consideration is how we, collectively, are now much more aware of hygiene and cleanliness. “Hot desking,” where employees share unassigned workspaces at different times of the day, might fall out of vogue as workers become more conscious of possible points of contamination.

Generally, janitorial crews will only clean communal areas since security and liability reasons keep them away from personal desks. Assuming that this policy does not change, employers may have to provide the means for their workers to clean and/or sanitize their own stations.

“In coworking particularly, providers are going to have to be able to show their clients that they’re doing everything they can to make it clean and sanitized for them to be there whenever they want,” said Nolin. “I do think that’s going to carry over to the office a bit too, especially with hot desking. But there’s going to have to be a clear and obvious sanitizing system in place.”

Past crises have resulted in a mix of ugly, knee-jerk reactions. Consider the bollards and concrete barriers that emerged around so many buildings following 9/11. These eventually morphed into more organic and streamlined features, such as electronic access and video monitoring. We likely will see a similar pattern during and after this pandemic.

“Post-2008, open offices grew in popularity due to their reduced operating costs, but people were jammed into spaces without acoustic treatments or proper distributions of meeting and collaboration spaces,” said the Eastlake team. “We’re still dealing with that backlash. It’s inevitable that current events will have a result on the built environment.”

Whatever form the office of the future takes, change should come from the top down. Every organization must recognize the value of space and community and empower their employees with the tools to effectively and healthily do their jobs.

“Often with collaboration spaces, the company leadership says that they have to have private meetings in conference rooms or in offices,” Nolin said. “If we can start seeing the leadership actually using those collaboration spaces, that that will be a big help toward making it feel more acceptable for everyone to do it.”

Time will tell if the average post-pandemic office lease erodes as users shave off square footage. More employees may end up working from home permanently, or they may not. For the sake of their workers’ health, happiness and productivity, companies should not make that decision flippantly.

“While downsizing workplaces will certainly be something many organizations will consider, we hope that leaders don’t make the decision purely based on finances,” said the Eastlake team. “If companies don’t recognize that their space is more important than ever, they could see a disintegration of engagement and company culture.”