The bulk of the country’s workforce was settling into its seventh week of working from home when Brian Roemmele, entrepreneur and tech thinker, published a tweet that made me worry about what my company’s office might look like post-COVID.
“Had an interesting Zoom today with a group of architects and office planners,” the tweet read. “A nearly 100% sell-out of plexiglass and plastic/cloth office dividers.”
The mid-March exodus from my Chicago office was still so fresh in my mind that I hadn’t yet considered what returning to it would look like. But now I’m imagining its hallways marked by ONE-WAY ONLY placards, water fountains hidden behind yellow caution tape and the once-open floor plan carved into a makeshift labyrinth by frosted glass partitions.
There’s talk that some businesses will remain remote-first even after stay-at-home orders are lifted. But most of us will occupy physical offices sometime again soon. What will that be like?
Designing a Safer Space
Lots of organizations realized these past two months that “people can work remotely, and can be productive in that environment,” said Nestor Eliadis, the Americas chief operating officer and chief financial officer at The Instant Group, which places companies in flexible workspaces. But, he added, “there are a few things that we’re missing right now. One is the collaboration — the physical, being-in-front-of-people, innovation, whiteboarding, brainstorming sort of work.”
For many, the in-office experience offers something that is intangible, irreplaceable. Safety modifications will need to be made to bring it back.
The workplace design experts I spoke to all mentioned similar office-space adjustments that businesses are planning on implementing before workers return — extra cleaning, staggered shifts, hot desks, cordoned-off common areas, maybe hands-free sensors too, if they’re real fancy.
“There’s actually been very little research done within office spaces to establish optimal infection control strategies that might mitigate transmission.”
Beyond rearrangements and bolted-on furnishings, we’re not seeing businesses going all-in on a total redesign just yet, though.
“Everybody’s starting to prepare, but there are still a lot of unknowns out there,” Jamie Feuerborn, senior associate and director of workplace strategy at Ted Moudis Associates, a corporate interior design firm, told Built In. “Given all of that, the conversations that we’re having [with clients are about advising them] not to spend a lot of capital costs toward making major changes right now to your work environment or to your office. It’s kind of a ‘Let’s wait and see what happens.’”
The wait-and-see approach may be due to the fact that organizations don’t yet know — beyond the obvious — what the best way to optimize the office for safety looks like. We haven’t really done this before.
“There’s actually been very little research done within office spaces to establish optimal infection control strategies that might mitigate transmission,” said Barbara Spurrier, managing director of Well Living Lab, which studies how indoor environments can improve well-being. “I think everyone’s trying to do the very best they can and be as informed as possible. But we know we absolutely have a research gap in thinking about changes in our office-based designs and operations, and how it might reduce transmission of the virus.”
Researchers at the Well Living Lab, a collaboration between Delos and Mayo Clinic, are working to close that gap in knowledge about how we can best keep office workers safe. They are investigating the efficacy of office safety measures, including how to effectively reduce surface contamination, create entry protocols and keep physical distance.
I asked them how businesses can think strategically about helping people feel safe when they return to the office. Won’t a laundry list of guidelines just put people on edge?
“Rather than say, ‘Here’s a 100-page policy manual, now do all this stuff,’” Spurrier hypothesized, “we know we’re going to have to be really smart when we think about how we’re layering these different kinds of interventions on and thinking about what it means to people at an emotional level.”
Dr. Veronique Roger, Well Living Lab’s director of research, said perhaps the only way office workers will feel safe is if they have a sense that safety recommendations are backed up by data. She highlighted Dr. Anthony Fauci as an example of someone who provides facts, and from them, presents inferences about what people should do in certain circumstances.
“It’s a combination of science and art of communication,” she said. Ultimately, though, “we probably don’t know enough about how people feel about this return to work right now.”
Focusing on Mental Health
“It’s going to be interesting to see as people start going back to work, because everybody’s going to have different levels of anxiety,” said Feuerborn, the workplace strategist. “I think some may not even know what their level is until they’re going back.”
According to Feuerborn, businesses might need to emphasize community-building even more than before.
“Everybody’s going to have different levels of anxiety ... some may not even know what their level is until they’re going back.”
Once workforces start returning to the office — in what will likely be alternating shifts, with some people staying remote — once-vibrant office cultures might feel disjointed, destabilized.
For that reason, many leaders feel an urgency to figure out how they will foster community in this context — rather than relying on team-bonding to pick up where it left off.
Feuerborn anticipates there will be a learning curve for everybody initially.
“People might need a little bit more space, and there might be a little bit more sensitivity around that for the next few years as people adjust back,” she said. “But you know, that pendulum is going to swing back.”
How are companies planning to support the office worker who feels anxious about returning to work — and whose anxiety is heightened by the workplace safety modifications in place?
“I think it’s pretty clear that the impact of coronavirus on mental health is significant and not going away anytime soon,” said Natasha Krol, principal at Mind Share Partners. “I think the new normal is just continued uncertainty and change.”
“The new normal is just continued uncertainty and change.”
At Mind Share Partners, Krol and her team train company leaders on how to create cultures of support for mental health. Last year, her organization ran a survey with SAP and Qualtrics, which revealed that about 60 percent of people surveyed said they had a mental-health symptom in the past year. Krol suspects that number has risen in recent months.
Currently, Mind Share Partners is advising companies to support workers struggling with anxiety and depression not only now, but also in anticipation of returning to an office space that feels different, that serves as a daily reminder that things are not like they used to be.
She anticipates that organizations will institute more regular check-ins as part of their cultures going forward.
According to Krol, it’s important for leaders to be vulnerable, transparent and highly communicative when at all possible. She points to examples of CEOs who consistently send reassuring emails to employees as one way leaders can offer comfort.
“Part of your role in communication is removing the uncertainty that you can remove,” she said, “or at least acknowledging it — and normalizing that this is hard.”