Office buildings have been getting overhauled in hopes that workers will soon be back
Toe-touch elevators, health-screening sensors and touchless doors could be the new normal in office design
It’s unclear whether COVID-19 will reverse some of the “open office” trends of recent years
“Welcome back to the office! Please go wash your hands at the sanitizing station, and then stand on the red box and wait to have your temperature taken.
“Okay, now please step over to the yellow box and wait for your turn to ride the elevator. Do not take your mask off.
“You should already have received an app to install on your phone to access your office door when you get to your floor. All door handles have been removed.
“Once inside, your office manager will direct you down the one-way paths to a workstation that you’ll be allowed to use for the day. Please don’t touch anything on the way. Remember, you must not leave anything on the desk or any of your belongings in the office when you leave.
“Your office manager will also schedule your end-of-day elevator ride once you punch in.
“Have a good day—and, again, welcome back!”
The “office” as we have long known it has changed in the wake of the pandemic—maybe forever—for America’s working population.
The outbreak of COVID-19 cases and the stay-at-home mandates across most U.S. cities and states has many of us still working from kitchen tables, cramped apartments, makeshift offices in basements, even childhood bedrooms. Though the work-from-home shift has been a boon to the companies that support it, many companies and industries still see the office as a necessary component.
But many of the old standards are on their way out. What will the office look like going forward? What will getting into a high-rise office building entail? Can we use the restrooms? Will someone be seated next to me? Do I have to come in only on certain days?
Here’s a look at post-pandemic office trends—perhaps temporarily; perhaps not.
Wellness Stars Are Coming
Sustainable building and design organizations have launched new guidelines for safety, sanitation, and social-distancing programs as some companies gingerly bring employees back into the office.
The U.S. Green Building Council, for example, has a pilot program called “Safety First” that gives credits for following certain protocols for cleaning and disinfecting as well as the indoor air quality, bathroom facilities, and safety guidelines for re-occupancy. The program is now part of its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—known as LEED—the ubiquitous green-building rating system.
A growing number of technology giants like Alphabet (GOOGL), Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR), and Square (SQ) have told employees not to plan to go back to the office until mid 2021—or even forever in some cases.
That’s not sitting well with office building owners and landlords, many of whom are seeing companies like GOOGL walk away from office developments or sublet vast amounts of space.
The jury is still out on what the future of office space will look like because, well, no one really knows yet. But what many building owners and landlords do know is that safety first must be their mantra or few will want to go back to an office willingly.
According to architecture and design giant Gensler, the future workplace will “embrace a ‘hybrid reality’—a blend of analog and virtual participation that could well redefine how we accomplish work going forward” because most companies realize they can’t expect workers to come back to the same office they were in.
Room to Spread
The trend in office space configurations for much of the last 20 years has been to reduce the number of square feet per person, which really means “cram more people into smaller areas.” In 2010, for example, square footage per employee was, on average, about 225 square feet, according to CoreNet Global. As of 2017, that had fallen to 138 square feet per person.
Designers set up open-space offices with what’s called “benching workstations”—long tables with computers and chairs lined up closely next to each other—as a means of enhancing collaboration and creativity.
And there were collections of couches and chairs, or booth-like seating areas, for individual work space or groupings. McDonald’s (MCD), for example, installed an arena-sized room with floor-to-ceiling windows and stadium seating that could be as packed as a college football game on some days.
That’s not going to fly as long as the coronavirus is potentially a sneeze or cough away. With social-distancing guidelines of 6-foot space requirements in place, companies will either have to take on substantially more office space than they already have or stagger employee attendance.
Commercial real estate brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield (CWK), for example, estimated companies’ office space footprint will need to expand by 15% to 20% as a result of social-distancing measures and new collaborative layouts for what’s expected—at least in the near term—to be a more “de-densified” office where employees might need to shout to each other to be heard.
There are few who suggest that the open-space concept that has become so popular in most modern offices is going away. “Workplace transformation is still trending away from dedicated private space and toward shared collaborative space,” according to CBRE Group’s (CBRE) July Global Occupier Sentiment Survey of 100 of the world’s top corporations.
“This is critical for workplace efficiency and satisfying a more hybrid workforce” of in-office and remote working, the commercial real estate firm’s report noted, indicating there’s some uncertainty given the health and safety impacts of COVID-19.
“Longer term, we expect a continuation of the trends we’ve been seeing,” Brandon Forde, president of CBRE’s Client Solutions division, said on a recent podcast. “Companies are going to fit out offices that allow them much more agility, that allow them opportunities to flex up or flex down in that office.”
The Office of Tomorrow?
Here’s a look at some ideas and technologies that are being tossed around and even tried in some offices today—all things that are likely to change as the “new office normal” evolves.
Lobbies. Office building owners and landlords are testing a number of new strategies that range from obvious protocols like an abundance of hand sanitizer stations and availability of masks and gloves, and screening kiosks to voice-activated systems and infrared screening systems known as IFSS. First developed in response to the 2003 SARS outbreak, the IFSS monitoring systems can evaluate employees’ and visitors’ health in real time, going a step beyond the thermometer.
Other advanced solutions include proximity badges to maintain healthy density levels and touchless technology on doors and elevators that could potentially use facial recognition to reduce contact. Some suggestions even include express lanes for pre-screened individuals who would use a QR code for entry and exit, not a whole lot different than the card technology used in many office buildings today.
Elevators – MAD Elevator, in Mississauga, Canada, has developed the Toe-to-Go (T2G) foot-activated elevator call button in which people activate the cabs and floors with their shoes, substantially reducing the risk of transferring germs by creating a hands-free experience. The system was a pandemic-inspired innovation created after the company got the idea from one of its Chicago clients.
MAD and other elevator creators are stepping up their technology on touch-free screens in elevators in which people have an app that is scanned to take them to their designated floor or use a card to activate the system.
Air quality. Heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems everywhere are getting upgraded with tighter filters that can better keep out and destroy bacteria and viruses. It’s an issue even before workers get back into the office. Buildings that have been closed up for long periods of time can create health risks of their own, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mold growth, rodents and other pests, and even stagnant water—a major cause of Legionnaires’ disease—are among the non-COVID-19 irritants identified by the CDC.
Ultraviolet lights on air mechanisms can also keep the environment clean, and humidified air is increasingly getting the thumbs-up as a respiratory aid, according to a recent study at Yale University. The study suggests environments with “40% to 60% relative humidity show substantially less ability to transmit viruses” in aerosol transmissions.
Sneeze guards. Yes, they look like they do at salad bars and pizza buffets (which, sadly, might become a thing of the past) and could become mainstays of every desk and workstation in offices soon. Companies are testing different solutions to keep social-distancing standards in place while trying to maintain some sort of collaborative layouts.
Plexiglass. Similar to what you might have seen recently at retail stores, plexiglass dividers could become a staple in businesses where workers have private offices. Toyota (TOYOF) recently announced it was having the plexiglass barriers installed between sinks in bathrooms. But here’s the thing about plexiglass: As of mid-2020, there’s no concrete evidence that acrylic shields are effective at limiting aerosol transmission.
Restrooms. Many office buildings throughout the country that don’t already have touch-free faucets, soap, and paper towel dispensers are getting them installed now. Next up: touch-free and foot-powered entry/exit doors and stall doors.
Workstations and common areas. New technologies and creative screening will be key to these changes. For example, Steelcase (SCS) has a line of desks and workstations with full screens, half screens, transparent screens, opaque screens, metal screens, fabric screens, and more.
Touchless and social-distance options may be coming to the common areas, such as sensors that tell people someone is around the corner or in the copy-machine room and kitchens with touchless faucets, coffee makers, and vending machines—even touchless refrigerators that open with hand motions. Some designers are even making chairs that can sense when the user has gotten up and walked away, in order to alert the cleaning crew that the area can be sanitized, as well as alert others that it’s available.
Conference rooms. The days of 20 people sitting in a classroom-like setting for live and videotaped conferences appear to be gone for the time being. Rooms that once held 10 people are being reconfigured to accommodate four to six, spaced apart, with video screens for Microsoft (MSFT) Teams or Zoom (ZM) meetings, for example.
Open space. Rooftop decks and terraces adjacent to office buildings have been a craze in recent years, even in cold-weather cities like New York and Chicago. Designers say that amenity is being requested more than ever as well as the ability to actually open windows in skyscrapers.
Companies—those that survive long term anyway—have always adjusted and adapted to changing trends, tastes, and preferences. Now it’s the office’s turn to adjust and adapt.