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When will offices reopen and what will they look like?

Chances are they will look quite different.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver

As parts of New York begin to open back up this week, starting with construction and manufacturing, New York City's workers are that much closer to heading back to the office. But what will they find when they get back?

WeWork and commercial real estate firm Cushman Wakefield predict the post-shutdown office space will be all about cutting down worker density, constant sanitizing and getting workers on the same page about safe behaviors they'll need to adopt.

Those already working are also shedding light on practices already in place, including daily health checks before heading into work and new elevator etiquette.

Get ready for a new look

As of early 2020, nearly 70 percent of all offices were open concept, and over the past 10 years, individual work spaces and desks have gotten smaller and smaller.

By the beginning of this year, workers had about 75 to 150 square feet of personal space —much less than the 325 square feet allocated to employees at the start of the 21st century, according to JLL, a property investment and commercial real estate firm.

With social distancing measures in place for the foreseeable future, that trend looks likely to change. The open-concept office may be no more, or at the very least, could be broken up. While there may not be a resurgence of cubicles, you may see a variety of spaces that break up the overall office floor plan and desks spaced farther apart.

WeWork—which has kept its 70 New York City locations open—already has a layout conducive to social distancing with a variety of spaces like private offices and common areas/lounge spaces that are buffered by quiet study hall rooms and nooks, the company says. You can see a video of its protocol here.

Cushman & Wakefield has the "Six Feet Office" project, a conceptual idea to help businesses maintain social distancing in their workplaces based on the work its done in China helping businesses there get back to work. The company also made a full-scale Six Feet Office in its Amsterdam offices.

That model shows workers spaced, yes, six feet apart, and with disposable paper sheets on their desks to keep germs from spreading.

Six Feet Office Cushman & Wakefield
Photograph: Courtesy Cushman & Wakefield

Like Cushman & Wakefield, WeWork is keeping workers spaced out. Where there might have been room for six at a particular lounge space, now only four can sit there, for example. Visual guides help determine the appropriate seating and number of people allowed in a lounge. Luckily, the company says it has enough locations to spread out the workforce that uses its spaces. So some workers could be relocated temporarily while social distancing is in place.

"Having our own geographic distribution, we’re able to accommodate our colleagues to come back and spread out throughout the city and throughout the boroughs of New York City," WeWork's CEO Sandeep Mathrani said in an interview with CNBC. "I do think, the aspect of WeWork having the flexible space, being geographically distributed within the city and around the world, will actually be an advantage."

WeWork office layout
Photograph: Courtesy WeWork

WeWork has also added signs reminding workers of hygiene tips, as well as touch-free sanitizer dispensers and visual guides on safe seating. Even elevator lobbies have distancing reminder floor stickers.

The same is found at the Six Foot Office, where stickers are placed on the floor of the elevator, telling riders where to stand. 

WeWork office layout
Photograph: Courtesy WeWork

Does this mean fewer people will be allowed on the elevator, even during the morning and evening rush? Yes. 

Atul Gawande, a surgeon, public-health researcher and writer for The New Yorker, said that in his hospital system, only four people are allowed on at one time, calling it a "nightmare at shift changes." 

"Again, looking at China, we’ve been able to see places that take four people per elevator," WeWork's Mathrani said. "You essentially time when people can come in. It’s almost like commuters: When you commute, you pick the best time to commute to make sure traffic is the least for you. I think, over a period of time, people will get used to the times elevators are busy, and they will time it out."

That also brings up the possibility that getting into your workspace or office building gets more complicated with daily health screenings.

"Any time I want to enter a hospital building, I have to go to a website that I’ve bookmarked on my phone, log in with my employee identification, and confirm that I have not developed a single sign of the disease—a new fever, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell, or even just nasal congestion or a runny nose," Gawande writes. "A green pass on my phone indicates no symptoms and grants me access to the hospital. Otherwise, I can’t work. In that case, the Web site directs me to call our occupational health clinic and arrange for possible testing."

There will be changes to how we work, too.

Meetings certainly won't be the same. Packing into a room just won't do if we must distance ourselves.

Gawande says that his team have changed that aspect of work as well.

"We’ve turned as many internal meetings, patient visits, and team huddles as possible into video meetings, even if someone is right across the hall," he writes. "When we can’t avoid face-to-face encounters, we’ve put up Plexiglas barriers and spaced our chairs and work stations farther apart."

It's also possible that your company may have you work from home. Twitter just announced on Tuesday that from now on, employees who want to work from home can do so and don't have to come into the office.

While that may not be an option, it could be that you're asked to work a different shift or work from home on certain days so the office is less crowded.

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said during an appearance on "Face the Nation" that schedules and arrangements will need to change.

"If you think of it as an employer, you have a bunch of employees, some of whom are dying to get back to the office and some people who are afraid that if they go to the office they will die," he said. "They're very concerned about they're immunocompromised or what have you. So they're going to have to come up with flexible arrangements. So imagine that there are three or four people: one will go to the office, one will stay home, some will go to some local or near-their-town working environment. It will change the pattern."

With all of this in mind, one thing is clear—this shutdown will have a lasting impact on how we work. 

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