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How the Pandemic Will Revolutionize the Office Both Physically and Fundamentally

For many people, adapting to a work-from-home lifestyle feels like living in an alternate universe, one where a global pandemic has required people to self-isolate and not leave their homes—what we all know now as reality. This dystopia exists in a much smaller world. A world roughly the size of your home. Most people are not accustomed to spending so much time in such a little space. (Bonus points go to the introverts for having advanced quarantine skills.) Even for people who worked remotely before the shelter in place orders, these current, pandemic-induced work-from-home lifestyles are pushing all sorts of boundaries like patience, time management, social health, ergonomics, productivity, work/life balance, and sanity—to name a few. 

Despite the setbacks, many employees are adapting surprisingly well to a work-from-home lifestyle by embracing technologies that they may not have relied upon as heavily before. Cloud technology enables remote collaboration. Video conferencing technology enables remote communication. A countless number of work-related platforms like Slack, Discord, Airtable, and Trello allow remote employees to stay organized and productive. There is even a new buzzy app called Clubhouse that allows social networks to effortlessly jump into “voice chat rooms,” much like the conference lines that we know and love to hate the hold music.

In a recent Axios webinar, Max Skibinsky, CEO and Co-founder of Vault12, a cryptostorage platform, said that “the virus is forcing employees to embrace teamwork productivity tools.” While major technology companies, like Apple and Google, have been using these tools to optimize workflows for years, many companies have not, until now. Long term, once the crisis management phase is over, Skibinsky believes this forced utilization of technology will result in increased productivity and improved operations for a lot of businesses, not just those in the tech world.     

If companies see improvements in workflows, productivity, and operations while employees are working remotely, they may consider continuing to do so. While I doubt most companies will go fully remote, I do think remote work and flexible work policies will be an ongoing trend and a part of our new normal. Axios’ Business Editor, Dan Primack, said that at the very least, business travel will decrease as people are finding virtual meetings to be an effective substitute. However, he also thinks that as social creatures, people will want to return to their old norms and habits, including office life. The question is will they be able to?

The majority of companies will probably choose to keep some kind of office space. Regardless of whether that space is smaller, shared, individualized, or the same, companies need to begin researching and implementing the necessary office adjustments for employees to return to a safe workspace. These adjustments will change the office of the future physically, but also fundamentally because they influence office culture. Whether we realize it or not, all aspects of a physical space influence our behavior—from the layout and design, to the air we breath, to the available technology. This influence goes both ways: new social norms, adaptive behaviors, and pandemic research will also play a role in how offices (and buildings) of the future are physically structured. 

Some of the major office adjustments to consider include installing “no-touch” technology, revising office designs and layouts, setting social distancing parameters, augmenting cleaning protocols, new sick-time and remote work policies, and most importantly, according to public health experts, ensuring indoor air quality. Landlords and building owners may be hesitant to invest in air quality considering the economic climate, but tenants cannot guarantee their employees a safe work environment unless the building has proper ventilation and filtration.    

Right now, the majority of office buildings in the U.S. do not have adequate HVAC systems to bring in fresh air. Instead, most office buildings in the U.S. simply recirculate the indoor air, which actually aids in the spread of airborne pathogens. It also means most buildings have unhealthy levels of carbon dioxide, which has been shown to decrease productivity levels and cognitive ability. A new study from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health even correlates COVID-19 related-deaths to poor air quality. Individuals exposed to particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5) over time were much more likely to die from the coronavirus. PM 2.5 comes from a number of sources, both indoor and outdoor, which is why air filtration is so important for occupants’ health.

One possible solution for indoor air quality that doesn’t require major building renovations is using an indoor air purification system like Aura Air, which filters and purifies a space of up to 600 square feet, according to the VP of Sales and Business Management, Roei Friedburg. “Today even with good HVAC filters, indoor air quality is up to 5 times more polluted than the air outside,” said Friedburg. Aura is both a stand alone platform and an IoT device with an open API, so it can be easily integrated into almost any space. The platform also provides data on air quality, which can be supplied to tenants and their employees who are returning to work post quarantine. Verifiable data on building safety will go a long way in ensuring that employees feel comfortable and safe at the office.   

The CEO of Vari (the new brand name of the well known VariDesk) Jason McCann plans to restructure their headquarters by reducing employee density, which means almost all employees will work from home one to two days per week. He also envisions mask-wearing will be commonplace, which could also be a temporary solution for air quality concerns in terms of viruses. Most businesses will opt to keep some office space, but they will require less square footage and flexible lease terms, which could result in an uptick for temporary, shared office spaces and co-working operators. In shared offices especially, post pandemic standards and protocols will need to be put into place regarding social distancing. Wiping down a surface after each use could also become the norm in co-working spaces, similar to the equipment use policies at a lot of gyms. 

The offices of the future will undoubtedly be less densely occupied, as both McCann and Cushman & Wakefield predict in their “six feet office” concept. Even with less people, old social norms for appropriate distancing will be null and void, similar to what we are witnessing at the grocery store with markers on the floor to determine appropriate spacing. Technology used for remote collaboration will still be necessary within the physical office and also for continued collaboration with people working remotely. Within the office, sitting side by side to view the same document, even on two separate screens, is a thing of the past. Coming from my personal experience, six feet away may still feel too close when indoors, especially for people coming out of quarantine who have been personally affected by the disease. 

Cushman & Wakefield’s 6 Feet Office is a conceptual idea to help its clients prepare for their employees to return to the office. Credit: Cushman & Wakefield

Aside from reduced density, another idea that’s been proposed for office design includes adding more walls or physical barriers. McCann’s “work spacing” design theme includes using “plants, privacy panels, partitions, storage, or simply more space between desks” to divide and spread out seating. Closed or divided offices will help people maintain appropriate distances, but physical separation will only mitigate transmission through person-to-person contact. Breathing in the air or contact with surfaces will still be unsafe due to the nature of how airborne diseases like COVID-19 spread.

Increases in the remote workforce means more shared workspaces, as individuals rotate in and out of the office. One of the ways that Cushman & Wakefield’s “six feet office” addresses shared surfaces is with desk-pads that are replaced daily. A traditional paper desk-pad doesn’t typically cover the entire surface of the desk, but manufacturers could consider creating custom versions to adapt to various common desk sizes. Further research would be required to determine if paper is a sufficient material to protect against contamination, or if a different material could be used. 

Surface contamination in shared areas of the office, such as kitchens and bathrooms, will require stricter cleaning protocols, but these spaces may also be reimagined completely. McMann’s vision agrees that common areas and shared spaces will need to change. Places like the water cooler or coffee station were once designed to encourage interaction, so we may find that offices of the future are more solitary, even not as engaging. Companies will need to find ways to inspire employees and maintain a collaborative culture, even with new restrictions in place. 

The country has been forced to rapidly adapt to working remotely. The way teams have successfully embraced new technologies during this time means that a lot of companies may consider implementing regular remote work policies. Furthermore, remote capabilities will now be a basic requirement for all businesses as an integral part of their continuity plans. People may even begin to expect remote work policies from their employers, making them valuable for recruiting. This pandemic will forever change our culture. Future offices will have to adjust to new social norms. There will be missteps along the way. But innovation and technological advancement will eventually catch up. Offices of the future may push the boundaries we once knew, just as our home offices do now. One thing is certain, even in this alternate universe, offices will continue to be a part of our lives, be it as reimagined physical spaces or just of a part of our new, at-home realities.

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