- Scores of white-collar employees have acclimated to working from home instead of the office as the coronavirus pandemic has altered daily rhythms across the world.
- Reopening dates for workplaces are not set in stone, but companies are still readying the office to welcome back employees in an age when having space is crucial.
- The changes are likely to include staggered workstations, sneeze guards, one-way corridors to minimize cross-traffic, and perhaps coming into the office only for group work.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a large focus of companies in the San Francisco Bay Area was establishing a place of work that reflected the 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.
Soon the office may become a place for only collaborative work. Employers may have to factor in a 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," Melissa Hanley, the CEO of the design firm Blitz, told Business Insider. "There's a human aspect of this that can't get lost in the conversation."
Business Insider spoke with seven architecture firms in the 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 global health crisis may permanently alter how people perceive the workplace.
Lockdowns have been implemented across the world. The San Francisco Bay Area was the first US region to do so, on March 17.
Workers there are coming up on week eight of the shelter-in-place order, which is expected to last through at least May.
A reopening plan announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom included good news for many white-collar workers pining for a return to professional normality: eventual office reopenings.
State leaders haven't announced a concrete date for reopening.
But the disease can easily be transmitted through dense office spaces.
As Business Insider's Holly Secon reported last week, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention constructed a color-coded seating chart of a South Korean call center to show how easily the disease could spread from person to person in a workplace.
Despite the lack of a hard reopening date, companies throughout the Bay Area have been scurrying to prep their offices for returning workers. It'll most likely happen before there's a vaccine for the disease, meaning that integrating distancing measures into office plans will be a must.
"It's going to be drastically different than when they left," David Galullo, the CEO of Rapt Studio, told Business Insider. The firm's repertoire includes office designs for tech giants like Dropbox, Google, and LinkedIn.
"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 short-term reentry.
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 No. 1 thing: Folks are scared," Hanley told Business Insider. "They're scared to come back to the workplace."
Many clients don't have the budget to support 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, the design firm Snøhetta told Business Insider in an email.
But overall, the key is to keep things configurable, Hanley said. What employers need right now is going to be very different from 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 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 and redoing the floor plan.
Perhaps the reception desk is less for checking in and more of a home foyer where you take off your coat and wash your hands.
Think of it as a mudroom, said Randy Howder, a managing director and principal 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 among workers would need to be rendered touchless.
Companies might take employees' temperatures when they arrive, and everyone will wear masks. But Primo Orpilla, a cofounder 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," Orpilla said, "but not make it feel like you're going through immigration" at San Francisco International Airport?
Workstations could be farther apart — you won't have a desk buddy right next to you.
There's also the option to implement soft architecture for workstations. That could mean placing panels or sneeze guards atop desks to allow for more confinement, Galullo said.
Workers will also have to make sure 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 likely won't be part of office life for a while, Orpilla said.
Conference-room density may have to be cut down, with chairs spaced 6 feet apart, Howder said.
Traffic flow may need to be considered. For example, workers might need to move about the office only clockwise 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, a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, told Business Insider.
And even a very clean bathroom may not be enough to satisfy some, Orpilla said. Workers may not feel comfortable going to the bathroom at the office, so there could be an exodus in the early afternoon after lunch, when people might choose to use their home's restroom instead and finish 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, as well as signs promoting hygiene best practices. Hand-sanitizer stations could 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 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 designated more 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 clients were developing plans that wouldn't have everyone showing up on the first day.
There may be staggered waves of employees coming into the office, as well as 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 working parents may not have that option, since it's unclear when schools and childcare centers will reopen.
There may be office cohorts or "neighborhoods" of 30 coworkers who always work together. Knowing everyone you're around could establish a social contract and a level of trust.
"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 now, Hanley said another series of modifications might need to be made in two to three months.
"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.
Greg Mottola, a principal at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, said that because of that, a lot of tech clients aren't exactly jumping at the opportunity to reopen. Remote work was already deeply ingrained in the tech industry, where productivity has long been valued over 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 workers in other industries, such as the more traditional finance sector.
There are a few immovable roadblocks, however, such as elevator use.
In San Francisco's office scene, for example, many companies have set up shop in glistening skyscrapers - the kinds of high-rises accessible by elevators, which involve squeezing people into close quarters to travel up to their floor.
A solution could be relying more on the stairs and making stairwells one-directional so you don't have cross-traffic, Byles said.
Another could be having people on, say, floors one through four use the stairs and people on floors five through eight use the elevator. There could be a designated elevator to take people down to the ground level and out of the building, Orpilla said.
Maybe reinstituting elevator attendants whose sole job is to push buttons would be fruitful, Hanley said.
Every firm we spoke with agreed that one of the biggest challenges is how to get employees from their homes to the office.
Safeguarding the office against COVID-19 - 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 on 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, though operators have been forced to cut back substantially on service.
Howder said that some of Gensler's clients were discussing a satellite strategy where if you're closer to, say, a company office in Oakland, you can go there instead of one farther away in San Francisco.
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 of people have hunkered down and acclimated to working from their homes. And people have joked 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 and others said the 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."
The ever trendy open floor plan is not dead either, according to designers.
Orpilla said that the open floor plan was always about providing choice for employees and that if it were done correctly, it would inherently be social-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 tasks on their plate at any given time.
The open floor plan has been embraced by companies in the Valley and outside of it. It's long fostered the idea of a flat hierarchy.
That has only been magnified by the pandemic and the need for videoconferencing to stay connected with remote work - there's no corner office in Zoom, Howder said.
We also won't see a return to the 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 are likely to usher in a hybrid work movement: equal parts physical office time and working from home.
Office culture was already leaning toward a more diversified workspace - the coronavirus pandemic may just be fast-tracking it, Byles said.
Employees could be able to choose for themselves how and where they work. For super commuters who devote hours to getting 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 areas with lower costs of living.
Clients have started supplying employees with more substantial work-from-home kits, including adjustable-height desks 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.
"I started working in the mid-'80s - 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 repercussion could be that people - now hyperaware of personal space - may be more standoffish with colleagues, Byles said.
There may very well be permanent cultural ramifications of this global remote-work experiment. Or, Hanley said, we'll return to what's 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.