The Future of Open Office Workspaces After COVID-19

The concept of the open office generated a lot of conversation before the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses literally spent millions and millions of dollars in capital expenditures tearing out office walls and retrofitting for open-office architectures. For some small businesses, they even elected to eliminate permanent office space altogether and move into coworking spaces with other small businesses and solopreneurs.

State of Open Offices Pre-Pandemic

For those embracing open-office workspaces, the business case is clear. Facebook, Google, and LivePerson were some of the early movers in the space—creating large, open spaces instead of enclosed rooms with private offices. The claim by those who adopted open offices is that they foster creativity and company culture. They also indicate that the amount of money spent per square foot for each employee is less. With the “me-too” approach that plagues many U.S. companies, it is not a huge surprise that 80% of U.S. offices today are open designs.

But on the opposite side of the spectrum are those who argue that simply because a company has an open-office design does not mean it is innovative—many are anything but such. A study from the Harvard Business School found that workers in open offices actually have less face-to-face interactions, have significantly more distractions (and thus are less creative), and create significant issues with privacy—including sexism.

Open Offices in the Face of COVID-19

With studies such as this one and others, the pendulum was beginning to swing back in the other direction—at least in terms of the adoption of hybrid models—prior to COVID-19. Regardless, with the advent of COVID-19 this transition is now in full swing. The architecture of open workspaces is being reconsidered as companies begin to think about returning to work. Some experts indicate the open floor plan can be redone with more consideration for personal space and stricter cleaning schedules. Other believe, however, that the open office design is untenable in the face of the pandemic.

Initial indications show that COVID-19 can spread quickly and easily in open office workspaces. For example, on one floor of a call center where 216 employees worked in South Korea, 94 of them tested positive to the virus. Over 90% of the cases were concentrated in a densely clustered portion of the office. Historically, offices are a key source of spreading the flu—with research showing that 16% of the cases being transmitted in the office.

Future Changes to the Open Office Workspace

The future open office workspaces are likely to take on a different architecture and different work processes. Following are some of the changes that will likely take place.

Thinking About Cubicles

Reverting to cubicles is one solution that is being touted. But experts now believe that cubicles are not enough to prevent infections from occurring; infectious droplets can travel as far as 27 feet. The same density levels that existed in open-office architectures before COVID-19 simply will not work in COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 worlds. It seems that cubicles are only a solution if greater separation between workspaces occurs.

Installing Sneeze Screens

Separating workspaces and installing plexiglass sneeze screens is another alternative being discussed. But like cubicles, the same workspace density levels before COVID-19 must be rethought. The reality is that open offices have increasingly been designed to pack in more people in a small amount of space. “Over the last five years, there’s been a push for the open plan model to densify,” says Primo Orpilla, a cofounder of Studio O+A, an interior design company. “That’s where you’re seeing the problems. Some places were designed without the additional open areas, meeting spaces, or the right ratio of meeting spaces to headcount.”

The world’s largest architecture firm, Gensler, is even developing an algorithmic tool that its clients can use to identify safe seating layouts. For its clients with hundreds of thousands or even a million square feet of large open-office spaces, the tool is certain to be crucial. 

Creating “Mud” Rooms

The typical open-office space includes a greeter who directs incoming workers to available workspaces as well as food and beverage in the kitchen area. The intent is to make workers feel comfortable. But in the post-pandemic world, this paradigm changes into what some are calling “mud” rooms or decontamination areas. Workers enter and have their temperatures checked, they change their shoes, wash their hands, and get a new mask.

In addition to the entry point, portable hot-water washing stations will become common. Rest-room density may change as well; with more rest rooms being built to accommodate greater social distancing.

Restructuring Work Schedules

The typical 9-to-5 workday has already been deconstructed as a result of the pandemic (and it was already being challenged before COVID-19). Companies will stagger work times where office work is done in shift and adopt hybrid models where employees will work from office workspaces some of the time and from their home office the rest of the time. This is already being done in various Asian countries and proving effective.

Getting Fresh, Clean Air

Experts believe buildings across the U.S. will upgrade their HVAC systems to bring in more fresh air. Those that cannot install centralized heating and cooling systems will implement portable air purifiers as a stop gap—and employees may even bring their own air purifiers. Studio O+A is installing giant exhaust fans in workspaces where small groups of people meet but still want fresh air. In the case of conference rooms, they are being opened up; three walls with one open for air flow.

Zapping Germs with UV Lights

Research shows that UV lights kill germs—including COVID-19. The future open office workspace will increasingly use UV light in elevators, mud rooms, conference rooms, and other areas where workers gather.

Banning the Door Handle

Offices are full of door handles—to enter, to get in-and-out of conference rooms, to get into the rest room. The same is true of buttons in elevators. These will disappear in the open office of the future—replaced by apps on worker phones that can be scanned or fobs that automatically open and close doors.

Tracing Worker Location

The ability to trace worker location and even health will accompany the introduction of apps and fobs. Companies will monitor the location of employees—and visitors—and even take health checks on those employees while they are working (e.g., real-time temperature checks). 

Moving Beyond Old Workspace Concepts

Most of the above scenarios cost money, and not every business is equipped to retrofit—and even add more real estate—to accommodate their entire workforce. Small businesses were already rethinking the use of permanent office space before COVID-19. They were adopting virtual workspace solutions such as Davinci Meeting Rooms, using coworking spaces and/or day offices on demand and reserving rented meeting rooms when they required meeting space. The flexibility of virtual workspace solutions also gave them the ability to embrace hybrid workspace approaches where they worked some of the time from home offices and, when needed, from coworking spaces or day offices.

Julie Smith, the chief administrative officer for Bozzuto, a real estate company in Maryland notes that COVID-19 not only presents challenges but is “an opportunity to really rethink how work is down in your organization. It’s an incredible moment for change and change management.” COVID-19 offers organizations to get beyond archaic mindsets about work—not only in terms of keeping workers safe and comfortable but ways to keep them happy and engaged.


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