• Office buildings are sitting empty across much of the world, as professionals work remotely to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
  • Business Insider gathered comments from seven experts on what the return to work will look like.
  • The return to the office will likely be marked by two waves: before a vaccine, and after a vaccine.
  • In the short term, offices will feel emptier than before as people return in shifts to workplaces with more private spaces, cubicles separated by plastic guards, and hallways signposted for one-way traffic.
  • In the long term, the office might convert into the social backbone of a company while focused individual work will take place remotely.
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The world is in the midst of the largest remote-work experiment ever, with office professionals around the world trading conference rooms for Zoom and their suits for sweatpants.

Like all experiments, it will eventually end, much to the delight of working parents who have had to add teacher and babysitter to their workday responsibility list.

However, when workers come back, they won’t be coming back to the same offices as before. Employers and landlords have spent the time away from the offices creating plans and protocols that bring social distancing to the office, with the hope of minimizing the spread of the virus.

Cushman & Wakefield is converting an office in Amsterdam into the “Six Foot Office,” a living laboratory that is informing a comprehensive guide for office operators looking to make their office safe.

The return is unlikely to be marked with a parade, like the 1918 parade in San Francisco that brought the Spanish flu back with a roar. Until a vaccine is developed, the office, and every other part of society, will have to observe social distancing to prevent coronavirus cases from picking back up and locking the country back down.

Business Insider heard from seven experts about the return to the office. They envision a two-part return: first, a slow trickle where only those that need to be in the office will return, and later, once a vaccine is developed, a more permanent return.

The first return will be slow, methodical, and may feel anticlimactic. Workers will return in shifts, and offices will feel emptier than before. Some open-plan offices may even see the return of private offices, or at least cubicles separated by plastic guards that protect against the virus’s spread. Some workers may work from home indefinitely.

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The final return, after the development of vaccine and the beginning of herd immunity, is more uncertain. Will offices look like they did at the beginning of March 2020? Likely not. The coronavirus crisis will likely mark a permanent shift towards remote work, which will have major effects on offices.

For companies to make the best decisions, they will need to be flexible and responsive to the needs of their employees.

The proposed changes will also be expensive, which will be harder for businesses to pay for as the economy restricts. Building operations technology company Enertiv found that only 31% of properties have used the lock-down period to do maintenance.

“Instead of leading with a solution, our recommendation is that we are led to the solution,” Sundar Nagarajan, head of consulting at JLL, said in a webinar about the future of the office.

The office: before a vaccine

Companies and landlords are preparing for shelter-in-place orders to lift, and for workers to return.

For each company, the plan might be different, but there’s one constant across all the plans: there will be less employees in the office.

“Every person who comes to an office increases the risk of other people in the office getting sick exponentially,” JLL’s Nagarajan said.

Without a vaccine, even the top protocols can’t bring the chance of transmission to zero. This also means that the first reentry may not be the final reentry. The next 12-18 months, before a vaccine is available, may be marked by a cycle of lockdown and relaxation, with periods of 100% remote work.

How to reduce transmission

In this first phase, companies will do what they can to manage risk, but it can’t be avoided.

“It’s impossible to run a completely risk-free work environment,” Lenny Beaudoin, executive managing director of space enablement services at CBRE told Business Insider. However, companies should be doing what they can to reduce risk.

There are five main categories of changes that need to be made to prepare the office, and office workers, for the first return to the workplace, according to Keith Perske, executive managing director of workplace innovation at Colliers: office design, behavioral changes, enhanced cleaning, technology, and communication of new protocols.

The popular open-floor office design leads to social distancing challenges, as employees often sit less than six feet apart without any protective screens between them.

Companies are considering only using every other desk, or putting plastic screens between desks. Some are even considering a move away from open offices, erecting cubicles or even walls between desk space. Shared spaces, like break rooms, phone booths, and conference rooms are hotspots for disease transmission, and will likely be converted into offices. Meetings will remain digital for the most part.

Companies and landlords both will also have to consider larger improvements to spaces such as improved ventilation.

“How do you manage that density if you’re not willing to physically change the environment?” Colette Temmink, president of property services at office services company Eden told Business Insider. The answer: changes in-office behavior.

These changes range from wearing masks and instituting one-way hallways to prevent close contact, to staggering work schedules throughout the day, or even alternating days or weeks in the office. Landlords or companies may also screen for fevers and other symptoms at the entrance to an office.

For behavioral changes to work, they need to be followed. Colliers’ Perske said that companies will need to empower employees to hold each other accountable, as you “can’t quite have a sheriff.” The ability to do this will be dependent on a company’s culture, though luckily, according to Beaudoin, most employees are coming back to the office as hygiene “experts.”

The cost of cleanliness and spatial awareness tech

These behavioral changes will have their own costs, Beaudoin said, as companies have to hire people to facilitate screening and staff to operate kitchens and elevators that were originally self-service. They will likely spend more on these services than on physical changes to the office.

Another key area where costs will increase is in hygiene, as companies will, at minimum, double the amount of cleaning they do in the office.

Companies will look for hardware that replaces ID cards with facial recognition and elevators and doors that don’t require any contact will become common.

Technology that tracks space utilization can also give data on the success of social distancing protocols, highlighting times when people didn’t observe social distancing.

Artificial intelligence company Landing AI has developed demo software that uses video to flag inadequate social distancing in the workplace in real time to worker’s managers or office managers over email, though it has received criticism for increasing surveillance in the workplace.

As after 9/11, the pandemic will force landlords and companies alike to rethink how they prioritize security and privacy. Companies that put too much or too little emphasis on security could face employee dissatisfaction or action. This has played out already among essential workers, with Instacart workers and Amazon workers striking over unsafe working conditions.

Keeping up the communication

In order for these protocols to work, and for companies to keep employees happy, communication in both directions are key. Companies should be proactively sharing everything they can about the changes they’re making with employees, and they should also be surveying them to make sure that they’re making the changes that will make employees feel safe.

Communication also comes in the form of extensive signage around the office to remind employees to follow social distancing protocols. Some companies are even creating courses on new protocols, which employees will need to pass before they can come back to the office.

The CEO of financial services company Discover, Roger Hochschild, has been sending employees daily emails to update them on the changes the company is making, Jon Drummond, Discover’s head of external relations, told Business Insider.

The company is considering many of the strategies the experts have suggested, such as converting open seating to assigned desks, checking temperatures at the entrance, and staggering arrival to the office.

The dangers of shared spaces

Of course, office workers do not just appear at the office, they need to travel there. For workers that drive their own car to a single-tenant building, they may only need to enter spaces controlled by their company. For workers who take public transportation and enter a multi-tenant building, they could be walking through spaces with many different protocols and risk potentials.

Landlords of multi-tenant buildings have been thrust into the role of coordinating between their tenants, as all it takes to turn a building into a hot spot is a mistake made by the lowest common denominator. The challenge will depend on the building and the tenant mix, but the landlord is usually responsible for making the rules and regulations for all of the shared parts of the building, Andrew Sucoff, real estate partner at Goodwin Law told Business Insider.

“It starts to get a little fuzzy when you say: OK, how many people can be in the elevator at the same time, and who is going to enforce that?” Sucoff said.

The office: after vaccine

When a vaccine is completed, and social distancing rules are relaxed, the office is unlikely to snap back to the way it was at the beginning of 2020.

“I think we’ve accelerated ourselves 5 years into the future, or maybe more,” Perske at Colliers told Business Insider.

In a webinar hosted by CREtech, Arnold Levin, director of strategy at architecture and design firm Gensler, offered some potential visions for the phase two office.

In one scenario, which Levin called “seasonal mobility,” will alternate between time in the office and time remotely based on seasonal dangers, like wildfires on the west coast, hurricanes on the east coast, or potentially the next pandemic.

He also said the office could be reimagined as a”brand and culture hub” where the central office becomes a place to train, hold large meetings and corporate culture events, and bring clients, with individual work taking place at home or in smaller satellite locations.

One thing is clear, remote work, in some form, is here to stay. A Colliers survey found that 82% of office professionals would like to work remotely at least one day a week after the end of the crisis.

“The door has been opened, and I don’t think you can close it,” Perske said.