The pandemic already pushed millions to work from home. Many of them will likely go back to a very different office.
If and when you return to your office after the novel coronavirus pandemic, you’ll probably notice some differences.
Upon entering your building, the doors may open automatically so you don’t have to touch the handles. Before you board your elevator, you might tell the elevator where you’d like to go, rather than pressing the many buttons within the elevator. When you reach your floor, you could walk into a room full of dividers and well-spaced desks instead of the crowded open floor plan you’re used to. In common areas like meeting rooms and kitchens, expect to see fewer chairs and posted documentation of the last time they were cleaned.
These are just the changes you can see. Less noticeable in the post-coronavirus office would be more frequent cleaning policies, antimicrobial properties woven into fabrics and materials, amped-up ventilation systems, or even the addition of UV lights for more deeply disinfecting the office at night.
Of course, this is all assuming you go back to your old office at all. As the coronavirus takes a steep toll on the economy and the workforce, many won’t have jobs to go back to. Some who are still employed will now permanently work from home, and some employers will choose to downsize their leases or look for flexible office space rather than long-term leases. Coworking spaces will probably never be what they once were as they forgo hot desks and communal spaces for more sanitary — and less profitable — private areas.
Many of these adjustments in office design are actually just accelerations of real estate trends that existed well before the pandemic. But just as policies around telehealth and liquor have quickly shifted, the Covid-19 crisis will force swift and permanent changes in both commercial real estate and work culture itself. The office as we know it will never be the same.
Working from home will be the new normal for many
According to a new MIT report, 34 percent of Americans who previously commuted to work report that they were working from home by the first week of April due to the coronavirus. That’s the same percentage of people who can work from home, according to a recent University of Chicago publication.
These new numbers represent a seismic shift in work culture. Prior to the pandemic, the number of people regularly working from home remained in the single digits, with only about 4 percent of the US workforce working from home at least half the time. However, the trend of working from home had been gaining momentum incrementally for years, as technology and company cultures increasingly accommodated it. So it’s also likely that many Americans who are now working from home for the first time will continue to do so after the pandemic.
“Once they’ve done it, they’re going to want to continue,” said Kate Lister, president of consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics, which is currently running a survey about work-from-home participation. She predicts that 30 percent of people will work from home multiple days per week within a couple of years. Lister added that there has been pent-up demand by employees for greater work-life flexibility, and that the coronavirus has made their employers see the light, especially as they themselves have had to work from home.
“It had been proven prior to this, but a lot of company management and leaders showed great skepticism,” Steve King, partner at small-business consulting firm Emergent Research, told Recode. “That skepticism will go away because companies recognize that remote work does work.”
There’s a lot more at play than what employers and workers want, of course. The economic impact of the pandemic will likely force many employers to cut costs. For companies to reduce their rent obligations by letting workers work from home is an easy solution, one that’s less painful than layoffs. In Lister’s words, “The investor community is going to insist on it.”
Furthermore, the necessity of working from home brought on by the pandemic has also caused many employers and employees to spend money on new technology, like video conferencing subscriptions as well as new equipment. According to data from expense management provider Emburse, the most frequent employee expenses in the first half of March included computer monitors, desks, office supplies, mice, and keyboards — a departure from the norm. These purchases presumably happened at companies where working from home was a new development.
“Companies were caught with their pants down,” said Lister. “Companies where the technology and culture were aligned with working from home were more successful in working from home than others.”
More formalization and company policies around remote work are necessary for the shift to be successful. A recent PWC study showed that about half of businesses expect a dip in productivity during the pandemic due to a lack of remote work capabilities. Companies where people have worked from home for a while and have built up guidelines — about, say, what time of night is appropriate to expect a response on Slack, how employees can securely access company files, and whether employees are allowed to expense an at-home monitor or standing desk — will probably have an easier time working from home.
Employees themselves are also spending more money to create better home offices. Katie Storey, principal at Storey Design, says that her residential and commercial interior design firm is already seeing the trend.
“Instead of allocating a corner of the den,” she said, “there’s now a real focus on where can we convert a closet or add a room under the steps or where can we reconfigure parts of the house to be more functional work-from-home space.”
Regardless of how prepared they were, people have done what they had to do to make working from home work. In doing so, they moved the needle on what’s acceptable in the at-home office.
“It added some humanity to us,” Lister said. “You don’t have a choice: The dog is going to walk through the meeting, your child is going to walk through. Period. We’ve just relaxed our standards to that. Maybe it will bring us closer.”
Coronavirus will likely change the way office space looks and works
Working from home all the time is not for everyone, and many will want to return to the office. As the public health crisis continues, however, office space will probably have to be altered in order for people to feel safe being there. That could mean a reversal of the open office trend.
For years, the amount of privacy allotted to each person working in an office had been steadily decreasing as companies of all stripes adopted the ubiquitous — if often loathed — open office plan. In effect, that meant a very cool-looking office space where you could see many of your coworkers but where there was little separation between you and your colleagues’ germs. Prior to the open office, offices used to have, well, offices, or at least cubicles that divided up the larger space and gave employees a semblance of privacy
“I do think this is going to reshape the workplace,” Janet Pogue-McLaurin, principal and workplace leader at design and architecture firm Gensler, told Recode. “Social distance thinking may be part of our DNA moving forward.”
That means people will want more space. Following the last recession, companies had been trying to do more with less space. That meant packing more and more people into open office spaces, a practice known as “densification.”
“Densification will take a hiatus,” Pogue-McLaurin said. “We’ll shift to, ‘How do we dedensify to create the physical distancing that we now need to have?’”
That could mean more private spaces or personal offices for individuals, and more distance between desks. Rather than desk setups that face each other or are right next to each other, we might now be positioned to our colleague’s backs with more space between us. A conference room that normally fit 10 people might now only hold chairs for five. Expect greater spacing and fewer seating options in communal areas like kitchens as well.
“Every configuration of every floor plan should be assessed to look at distancing and safety,” Kate North, vice president of workplace strategy at Colliers International real estate company, said.
This could also mean the reintroduction of various types of barriers between desks, including much maligned cubicles, in order to block the passage of germs — an effort that might be harder given the prevalence these days of standing desk options.
Christine Cavataio, president and chief operating officer at architecture firm Cuningham Group, thinks that while physical barriers will be used in the short term, the more long-term architectural fix will be done with spacing.
In the immediate future, “we’ll see physical, hard things that create separation,” Cavataio said. “Over time, we will start to design differently to create space, versus how tight can we get it. Can we get our generous six feet of physical distance and still create a company environment people want to be in, knowing you have safety inherently based in the design?”
Commercial real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield is testing a new design concept called “Six Feet Office” in which it visually displays unique foot traffic routing in the office to keep people the recommended six feet apart.
Perhaps more importantly, though less visible, will be the actions that facilities managers take to divert congestion points and clean offices. International Facility Management Association (IFMA) is currently working in tandem with other specialized groups for cleaning and ventilation systems, among other things, to create guidelines and protocols for building operators around the world.
“There’s going to be a special effort to consider and think about every possible place within the built environment that a human being has touched and the possibility of that being a source of contamination,” Don Gilpin, president and chief operating officer at IFMA, said.
That effort could include everything from higher-quality air filtration systems to more-powerful cleaners. Every surface — including door handles, light switches, countertops, copy machine buttons, AV equipment, coffee makers, and many more — will have to be dealt with. According to Cavataio, regular offices will likely take cues from health care design. This shift could include the addition of things like copper fixtures, fabric that retains fewer germs and can more easily be cleaned, more space in kitchens and bathrooms, as well as more attention paid to how far liquids can splash. Some companies could even use UV lighting to disinfect offices at night or meeting rooms in between uses, a practice that’s increasingly common in hospitals.
Automation and voice technology could also play a role. Technology like Amazon Alexa for Business, for example, could become a new interface and remove the need for physically pushing a button or touching a surface in an office. As Bret Kinsella, founder & CEO of the voice technology publication Voicebot.ai, explained, “There is voice tech in warehouses today but very little in office settings. That will absolutely change.”
Inevitably, the most consequential way to prevent the spread of germs in an office might just be to limit the number of people allowed inside at once. Rather than having everyone work in the office from nine to five, companies might want to bring in certain teams at specific times to lessen congestion. The initial process of bringing employees back to work, at least, will probably be staggered.
“What we are anticipating is a gradual ramp-up of business as usual,” Gilpin said. “We are not expecting a flood gate of theaters and corporate spaces opening up to employees and the public. We see this as a gradual process.”
Demand for office space is uncertain
There are two conflicting trends that will affect whether or not the coronavirus leads to a sizable decrease in demand for office space.
First, fewer employees coming into the office, either due to layoffs or to an increase in working from home, could mean less need for office space.
As Tim Savage, a clinical assistant professor of real estate at NYU’s Schack Institute of Real Estate, put it, “As people are forced to work from home, personal space becomes an office. In a way, we’ve dramatically expanded the amount of office space we have.”
Second, safety protocols that require people to be spaced at least six feet apart could cause more demand for office space so that the people who work there aren’t as packed in as they used to be.
“In short, it is too early to tell if companies will lease less space,” Julie Whelan, Americas head of occupier research at commercial real estate services company CBRE, told Recode. “While they may need less space because some people may conduct some of their work remotely, they may also need more space to provide the social distancing that employees may feel they need to be comfortable.”
It’s possible these two trends will cancel each other out.
So far, CBRE has noted that as a result of the coronavirus and its containment measures, office leasing has slowed and vacancy rates are rising. But the company also says that office properties will be more insulated than other property types like hotels and retail.
“The impact on office [space] should not be as deep or broad as what was felt after the financial crisis,” Whelan said.
Experts say there will certainly be an acceleration of existing trends in office real estate, including a move away from traditional 10-year leases for shorter ones or for flexible or coworking space (more on that later). Still, the nature of existing office leases will likely temper upheaval in the office market.
“Those who signed 10-year leases a few years ago are legally obligated to meet the terms of those leases,” Savage, the NYU professor, said. “But this could affect expansion plans.”
Whatever happens to demand for more or less square footage, the coronavirus will likely affect the type of space people are looking for. Spaces with more private areas that might limit the spread of germs stand to become more popular, for example. And while meeting rooms will still be important, companies will likely reconsider the types of meeting rooms they want (and, by extension, question whether a meeting is necessary in person in the first place). Those new types of meeting rooms will be geared toward group projects and collaboration.
“We’re going to reevaluate face-to-face meetings: which are really important and which can be substituted,” Gensler’s Pogue-McLaurin said. “We want to reserve when we do come together to be special and important and about creating relationships — and to create social distance without feeling awkward.”
Coworking is not doomed, but it’s destined to change
Proponents of coworking spaces have long argued that companies managing flexible office space would be able to weather a recession. That’s because, while a number of clients at coworking spaces might choose to liquidate their space completely, coworking companies expect an influx of new clients looking to downsize from traditional office space with long lease terms into so-called flexible or coworking space.
What the coworking space enthusiasts didn’t anticipate was a fear — and a legitimate safety hazard — of working in close quarters to others. Coworking companies like WeWork have already seen a rapid decrease in demand as clients with month-to-month commitments have dialed back or terminated their coworking memberships due to shelter-in-place orders during the pandemic. Experts say this setback hardly signals the end of coworking. It’s probably temporary, though it may lead to the demise of some struggling coworking companies.
“Before this crisis, we saw a slowdown in leasing activity to flexible space operators because the sector was starting to rationalize,” CBRE’s Whelan told Recode. “It is without a doubt that the industry is feeling pressure now, as is evidenced by the headlines around lay-offs among many of the major [coworking] brands.”
Before the Covid-19 crisis, many large companies were increasingly taking advantage of the flexible terms of coworking space rather than taking on long-term leases. That’s likely to continue, perhaps even more rapidly.
The uncertainty the coronavirus brings could cause more companies to look for flexible space that can accommodate rapid changes in their needs. Coworking spaces can also provide office environments for newly remote workers who choose to work outside the office.
“If anything, this crisis highlights why flexibility is valuable for companies,” Whelan said.
However, coworking as we know it will probably have to change to survive. Coworking spaces are known for their communal areas and shared amenities like hot desks, where anyone can use an open work station — and where it’s often unclear how recently the space has been cleaned.
“Think about the little phone booths people were starting to use for calls for privacy,” Gensler’s Pogue-McLaurin noted. “If someone sneezed, you have a germ-filled little box.” (Months before the coronavirus outbreak, WeWork’s phone booths were already flagged as dangerous because they contained high levels of formaldehyde.)
In addition to heightened cleaning protocols, coworking spaces will have to rethink their vaunted — and highly profitable — use of communal space. Fitting as many people as possible into one location won’t be as acceptable as it used to be. Like with regular offices, keeping coworking spaces safe in a post-coronavirus world will probably lead to more dividers and private offices. That might also mean fewer chance encounters between people from different teams and companies — interactions that coworking companies say differentiate them from regular office real estate companies.
Fortunately for coworking companies, their growing base of enterprise clients had already been moving in that direction, leasing whole sections, floors, and even buildings from coworking companies.
“Pre-Covid, the trends were already tilted toward more private team space within those operations,” said Mark Gilbreath, CEO and founder of LiquidSpace, a platform for companies to get flexible office space.
“What will be most in demand will be spaces that offer a measure of control and privacy during the recovery, when there’s still uncertainty financially and from a health and safety perspective.”
So for those who do return to their office jobs following the coronavirus, the space will look different, and they’ll be functional for a different future. Hopefully, that will mean they’re safer, too.
Support Vox’s explanatory journalism
Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.