Life After COVID-19: How Can We Work in an Office Again?

By Rosunnara Roth
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Photo Courtesy: @CushWakeBOSTON/Twitter

COVID-19 has altered life in countless ways, but especially in the workplace. Many office workers found themselves adapting to work from home for the first time in their careers. Millions have spent weeks adjusting to life in quarantine, but one day we will all return to life in the office. The burning question is what will office life look like post-COVID-19?

Whenever it happens, going back to the office isn't going to be the same. While COVID-19 continues to be a worldwide threat, companies need to find ways to make their employees feel safe and comfortable once the virus is under control. Experts predict shifts in office layouts, safety measures, air filtration and hands-free technology. Let's take a glimpse at what working in an office could look like after COVID-19.

What Did We Do Before?

The typical pre-COVID-19 workplace included open floor designs, close seating plans and recirculating ventilation systems. Open offices were created for teams to easily interact and collaborate with each other. However, studies show that interaction isn't a problem in any office design. Studies also prove that open offices are actually distracting, noisy and lack privacy.

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Photo Courtesy: Oli Scarff/Staff/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Fun fact: Open offices actually existed before cubicles. Issues resulting from open offices led to the cubicle movement. Unfortunately, this also led to a lack of light exposure and workers growing to despise the confinement of a dull, gray environment.

Tech companies brought back open offices, spinning the negative qualities into positive qualities. As companies hired more employees, shrinking spaces also became issues. Most office HVAC systems recirculate air that's already in the building rather than bringing in fresh air. Although this method saves energy, it's not a great way to improve indoor air quality. As a result, recirculating HVAC systems can negatively affect the health of workers. Other common settings in an office include shared office rooms and communal bathrooms.

Why Doesn’t This Work Anymore?

Open Offices and Densely Populated Areas: Before the outbreak, studies revealed that workers in open offices get sick more often. As a result, current workplace practices would not keep workers safe from contracting COVID-19. In fact, it would allow the virus to spread more easily.

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Photo Courtesy: ED JONES/Contributor/AFP/Getty Images

There's not enough personal space in most offices to protect workers. For instance, Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed how quickly the disease spread throughout a call center. The majority of workers who were infected were sitting in close proximity.

The workstation isn't the only dangerous area in an office. Other high risk areas include hallways, elevators, bathrooms and meeting rooms. You're more likely to come into close contact with others in these places as well.

High-Touch Surfaces: Employees regularly share office surfaces. High-touch surfaces include elevator buttons, doors, light switches, chairs, coffee machines, microwaves and tables. The problem? The virus can survive on many surfaces for days. According to the CDC, these areas should be cleaned and disinfected daily. However, cleaning methods aren't enough to purge a busy workplace of the virus.

Airflow: Some office buildings are poorly ventilated, including those with HVAC systems that recycle air. Reusing indoor air leads to a higher risk of spreading the virus. COVID-19 particles can live for three hours in the air. Imagine what you can breathe in while you're in the office for eight hours every day.

With the high possibility of a second COVID-19 wave in the fall, employers need to figure out how to protect their workers before they return to work. Is it possible to develop a virus-free workplace? Disease experts say no. "A core message is do not expect your risk to go down to zero," states Dr. Rajneesh Behal. However, a few experts and companies have suggested valuable solutions.

How Can We Replace This Method?

Commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield has become an expert in helping businesses change their office plans due to the pandemic. For instance, the company worked with 10,000 organizations in China when its economy reopened. It also sought information from the World Health Organization (WHO) and medical specialists. Using its research, Cushman & Wakefield created "The Six Feet Office" concept in its own headquarters.

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Photo Courtesy: ISHARA S. KODIKARA/Contributor/AFP/Getty Images and NOEL CELIS/Contributor/AFP/Getty Images

One of the company's most important practices is applying distancing measures. This includes scattering workstations, posting visual signs to remind people to keep their distance and implementing one-way hallways to reduce cross-traffic.

Currently, many companies have applied cough and sneeze guards throughout their workplaces. It's a common policy in banks and grocery stores, but it's a new practice for most offices, including Seoul's Hyundai Card. The credit card company uses the barriers at desk stations and in the cafeteria.

Experts believe hands-free technology is another fixture that could be part of the new normal. When workers come into contact with high-touch surfaces, the virus can easily spread. As a result, installing sensors could help workers encounter fewer hotspots, including light switches and door handles. For instance, Estonian tech company Ninja Solutions remodeled an office building to allow employees to open elevators and doors using their smartphones.

Taking temperatures and wearing masks could be new rules in the workplace too. Some restaurants and stores already check their customers' temperatures at the door before letting them in. Many stores also don't allow shoppers to enter without a mask. Some workplaces and stores that follow these preventative measures are Walmart, Amazon and Tim Hortons. Once the U.S. economy reopens, more employees should expect the same procedures at work.

Improved ventilation is another important preventative step against the virus. If your workplace has windows, it's a great idea to open them for better airflow. If your company relies on HVAC systems, advanced air filtration would help clear up the room.

Experts also see limited office occupancy in the future. This can be accomplished by only allowing people to come into the office for collaborative work or assigning each team to come into the office on different days. Dr. Scott Gottlieb says, "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." A rotating schedule could help reduce the number of people in the workplace at any one time.

Working from home could be normalized as well. Many people have already formed effective routines while working remotely, which is a big benefit for businesses. It shows how flexible and consistent employees are. Recently, tech giants Facebook and Google announced that they will let employees work from home for the rest of the year. Twitter is allowing employees to work remotely indefinitely.

"The one thing that we know for sure is that ‘back to normal’ in the workplace is going to be anything but normal," Cushman & Wakefield CEO Brett White explains. "The protocols that we’re going to need to implement in offices and industrial [and] retail buildings in which we operate are completely changing."