How your company office could change in the post-coronavirus era

Key Points
  • When the economy opens up and employees start heading back to the office post-coronavirus pandemic, offices will be redesigned.
  • Companies are envisioning a new normal, prioritizing additional space, sanitation and flexibility with more employees working from home on a semi-regular basis. 
  • Key changes include antimicrobial materials, more and better air filtration, temperature monitoring at entry points and desks spaced farther apart.
Commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield recently introduced the Six Feet Office concept to showcase some of the ideas it envisions companies will be adopting soon. These include desks spaced 6 ft. apart, along with bold color and visuals such as circles embedded in the carpet to remind people to distance themselves.
Cushman & Wakefield

The battle between the states and the federal government is heating up about when to open the economy and start letting people go back to work due to the coronavirus. On Monday, Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CNBC that employers need to have specific plans in place for how to safely return workers to the office or shopfloor.

"In an office, you could split your employees — have half of them work at home, half of them come into the office on alternating days," Gottlieb said on "Squawk Box." 

He added: "You should continue to encourage telework where you can." 

Exactly when employees will be heading back to work is still an unknown, but what is certain is that when it does happen, things at the office will almost certainly be very different. Just as the pandemic is likely to have a lasting impact on our personal habits, it will also change the way we work. Among the key changes companies are already considering: more space, sanitation and flexibility, with more employees working from home on a semi-regular basis.

Former FDA chief Gottlieb on practical steps businesses can take to reopen safely
Fmr. FDA chief Gottlieb on practical steps businesses can take to reopen safely

So how will all this be achieved? According to a number of office designers, companies will be installing more sensors to reduce touch points, such as on light and power switches and door handles, antimicrobial materials, more and better air filtration, temperature monitoring at entry points, desks that are spaced farther apart, plus subtle design features that remind people to keep their distance. 

Transforming behavior through office design

Over the past month, commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield has helped 10,000 organizations in China move nearly 1 million people back to work after the country reopened its economy after the pandemic. Cushman & Wakefield, which manages 800 million sq. ft. of office buildings in China, learned much from that experience.

According to Despina Katsikakis, who heads Cushman's occupier business performance, the company used its learnings — along with World Health Organization data and the advice of medical specialists — to develop a concept dubbed the Six Feet Office, which it has already applied inside its Amsterdam headquarters.

Cushman & Wakefield CEO Brett White on returning to work
Cushman & Wakefield CEO Brett White on returning to work

Through properly spaced desks and visual cues, such as bold colors and large circle designs in the carpet, the Six Feet Office concept will remind employees that 6 ft. must stay between people at all times. Katsikakis says the Six Feet Office concept is a prototype to showcase some of the ideas Cushman envisions companies around the globe will be adopting soon.

The bold circles in the carpet in Cushman & Wakefield's Six Feet Office concept is designed to remind people to social distance.
Cushman & Wakefield

Katsikakis believes many employees will welcome these new changes. In recent years the amount of square footage allotted per employee has gone down from 211.4 sq. ft. in 2009 to 17.6 square feet in 2017, according to Cushman & Wakefield. This has led to widespread complaints about loud office mates and lack of elbow space. 

COVID-19 is likely to halt this trend. Other changes she sees happening in China: staggered schedules to lessen occupancy in buildings, desks being moved farther apart and more barriers between desks. Cushman & Wakefield also sees more emphasis on sequencing people into elevators so they aren't packed in like sardines. 

Another feature the commercial real estate company says to expect is an increase in signs instructing employees to walk in one direction in hallways, or clockwise in a meeting room, to ensure an orderly flow to foot traffic. 

Some companies gearing up

Making changes to accommodate social distancing at the office is already top of mind for many companies as talk of reopening the economy has started to reverberate here in the U.S. Among those that have already announced major changes are Marriott and financial services firm Discover.

On Tuesday, Marriott announced the hotel chain will be using signage in its lobbies to remind guests to maintain social distancing protocols and will be removing or rearranging furniture to allow more space for distancing. The company is also considering adding partitions at front desks to provide an extra level of precaution for guests and associates and is installing more hand-sanitizing stations at the entrances to its hotels, near the front desk, elevator banks and fitness and meeting spaces. In addition, guests will be able to use their phones to check in, access their rooms, make special requests and order room service that will be specially packaged and delivered right to the door without contact. 

According to Andy Eichfeld, chief human resources and administrative officer at Discover, the financial services firm is considering a number of new policies to keep their employees safe once the company reopens. Currently, 95% of their workforce is working remotely. Procedures under consideration are a gradual return to the office, temperature checks for all employees at the door and having every other workspace be closed off. In addition, traffic throughout hallways and stairwells may be one way only, along with limited occupancy in the elevators.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's full interview on restarting US economy
Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's full interview on restarting US economy

More emphasis on sanitation 

Shared workstations have long been a hotbed of disease transmission, and the current pandemic is likely to change this trend. Designers say they expect the disappearance of shared keyboards and for companies to introduce clean desk policies with nonessential items stored in cabinets and drawers rather than on the desk to ensure proper cleaning and sanitation. 

Designers say they are hearing more inquiries about disinfecting UV lights, which can clean not only equipment like keyboards but entire rooms overnight. Nicole Keeler, director of sustainability at interior design and space-planning firm Nelson Worldwide, said she's also fielding questions from companies and building owners about easy-to-clean materials. 

"There's surfaces that are antimicrobial, just like you would see in a health-care system or in a laboratory," which could become a new norm for workstation surfaces, she said. 

Nelson Worldwide's Philadelphia office. The interior design and space-planning foresees antimicrobial surfaces, like in a health-care system or laboratory," could become a new norm for workstation surfaces.
Farm Kid Studios

Another feature that could come into more common use: negative pressure rooms. Now used mostly in medical facilities or airport smoking rooms, negative pressure rooms could help contain germs in, say, a conference room, which can then be cleaned using UV light. 

Enabling collaboration through design 

Working from home has many perks, but one downside is that collaboration is difficult with limited face-to-face communication. A recent study from PwC showed that half of the businesses expect a dip in productivity during the pandemic because of a lack of remote-work capabilities. 

In recent years, some companies have focused on making their spaces more comfortable in hopes of drawing people back. Companies "are literally trying to make their spaces more desirable to draw people back to the office because they do feel like there was a lot of that personal connection and collaboration," said Nelson Worldwide's Keeler. 

Assuming more people will be working from home regularly in the future, "we will have more specialized spaces in the office," said Jeremy Reding, principal and global workplace leader at DLR Group, a firm devoted to sustainable design in areas including health care, hospitality, museums, schools and the workplace.

Reding envisions rooms geared toward specific tasks such as small group conversations, as well as larger spaces for events and maybe even some rooms dedicated to virtual reality. 

DLR Group's Hines T3 West Midtown building in Atlanta
©Creative Sources Photography/Rion Rizzo, courtesy of DLR Group

"It's really tuning the room to the desired behavior," Reding said. For training, if there is one speaker, the room should ideally have acoustics to amplify that speaker's voice so everyone can hear well. If it's meant to be more social, "you want to set up the sound in there such that maybe you're not getting a ton of reverberation because that creates headaches," he said. 

To control these factors, designers use various materials such as carpet, acoustic tiles or curtains. Many of these factors are common considerations in the hospitality industry but new to corporate office environments.   

Conserving energy 

After the crisis, some workers will likely continue working from home on a regular basis. To accommodate a more flexible workforce, companies have more reason to demand adaptive energy systems. Right now offices are designed to accommodate a certain number of employees on any given day. That means if only half of the employees show up on any given day, the energy usage is unlikely to change much, and the room may end up being colder than usual.

Reding, who has been going into the DLR office in Seattle alone, said the office has been freezing. "Right now we're overcooling, and all downtown [Seattle] is probably overcooling because there's nobody in the buildings," he said. Current systems are not adaptive, but Reding sees the introduction of adaptive systems that can respond more effectively to changes in occupancy levels. 

More room for tech collaboration 

With more employees working remotely even after the crisis, companies will likely invest in more and better technology to connect more effectively with remote workers. A survey by Gartner found that 41% of employees  are more likely to work remotely at least some of the time post-pandemic.

Eric Arnold, president of Arnold Contract, a New Jersey company that makes custom office furniture, said there's been growing emphasis on technology with some built right into the furniture. Conference tables today not only include electrical plugs for computers and other equipment but may also have built-in microphones. 

"Having a culture of trust that supports remote working … I don't see those going away," said Katsikakis, who sees more companies leveraging remote working regularly.