Few things are certain, but the consensus among our experts? Offices are going to look very different.

By Lauren Phillips
June 29, 2020
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As the coronavirus crisis drags on and outbreaks continue—and even emerge—across the United States, your routine of heading to the office every morning may feel like a half-forgotten dream. Working from home isn’t for everyone; while some people have adapted to it (and are pushing to work remotely permanently), others are eagerly awaiting their return to their cubicles and office desks.

While the actual date of general office reopening will depend on your location and employer, it’s safe to assume that every office space will look more than a little different. “The CDC has made clear requirements for reopening businesses, including wearing masks, proper hand sanitization, etc.,” says Ari Grazi, president of Indiesigns, which sells signage designed by independent artists. “Some of this is even being required by law in certain states.”

Beyond the rules surrounding office reopening, employers have a responsibility to take measures to keep their employers safe—and likely want to avoid the consequences of being held responsible for an outbreak stemming from their workspaces. Office-workers want to stay healthy, and employers want to help keep them that way. The resulting office spaces won’t look exactly like what we remember, but they will keep us safer in the near-term.

If you’re eager to return to in-person work but are wondering what to expect from your new office space, read on for predictions from design and office space experts on what the offices of the near-future will look like.

“Signage is the means to communicate all of these evolving requirements to whoever walks into your store, office, or construction site,” Grazi says. “We expect signage to be a big part of the new normal for the foreseeable future.”

With social distancing guidelines, hand-washing recommendations, and mask mandates, there’s a lot for everyone to remember. Signs reminding employees to follow the rules will be everywhere, experts predict, with occupancy restrictions, public health reminders, and other employer-set rules liberally displayed.

“Signage will vary from innovative, fun and fresh graphics, to the same informational signs we were familiar with pre-pandemic—it just depends on the company, their culture, and the degree to which this becomes part of their official game plan, or whether it’s just the bare minimum they do to comply with the CDC guidelines,” says John Stein, president of Kirei, which produces acoustic panels and wall dividers.

Expect floor decals reminding people to stand apart, directional signage to control foot traffic down busy hallways, elevator occupancy signs, posters for new rules with visitors, and other not-so-subtle reminders to practice healthy habits. Beyond the literal signs, there are likely to be plenty of visual cues, such as prominently placed hand sanitizer and mask distribution stations.

New signs won’t necessarily feel like menacing reminders of the crisis. “We don’t think this has to be an intimidating or unpleasant transition,” Grazi says. “Part of what we’re hoping to do with Indiesigns is to normalize the process of integrating signage within design, so new safety measures become second nature acts of mutual respect and public health.”

Either by physically distancing employees or staggering work hours, employers will likely try to keep their offices from becoming the bustling, crowded places they once were for some time. The days of packed elevators are gone for now, say John Campbell and Ann Hoffman, president and director of workplace strategies, respectively, at Francis Cauffman Architects (FCA).

“At first, we can expect that people will start to return in a staggered and progressive manner, instead of everyone returning all at once,” says Steve Verbeek, vice president of innovation and design at Teknion, an office furniture design company. “Many workplaces may, in fact, not be able to accommodate everyone based upon the need to reduce occupancy levels to ensure social distancing.”

Expect many companies to allow some employees to continue to work from home, if they prefer; others might bring back a small proportion of workers at a time, or establish a rotational system where people work in the office just a few days a week and work remotely the rest of the time. Don’t expect your entire team to return to the workspace together immediately.

The alternative, building barriers between workspaces and spacing out workers to maintain distance, is no small feat.

“There are various options to consider for the short- and long-term,” says Jenifer Colón, design director at Ted Moudis Associates, a workspace design firm. “Some of our clients have opted to reduce their staff return significantly and phase their return instead of modifying desks or adding physical separation. Others have taken the measures to space out workstations or add divider panels between existing desks to create barriers that will help in increasing occupant comfort levels.”

If floorplans don’t allow for separating workstations, a smaller daily in-office workforce may not be avoidable—particularly if many employees ask for special permission to continue working from home out of health or childcare concerns.

“More people will continue to return as we make accommodations within the workplace, and also as we begin to feel more safe about our environment, which includes the commute to work,” Verbeek says.

Car commuters may be able to safely (and comfortably) return to work before their public transit–taking peers because of concerns and uncertainty surrounding cleanliness, contamination, and crowding on buses and trains, particularly during rush hour. Even if workspaces are safe to return there, getting to work poses its own challenges.

The New York Stock Exchange floor partially reopened in May, with the rule that anyone who had used public transportation was not allowed in the building. Whether other companies and offices will adopt the same rule remains to be seen; either way, employers will need to figure out safe ways for their employees to travel to work, whether that’s encouraging travel by car or bike or having staggered work hours to limit exposure to crowded trains and buses.

Beyond worker behavior and capacity, the spaces they occupy will likely look different, at least at the beginning of reopening. Cubicles or desks in open floorplan offices may be separated or removed all together, or workers may be asked to move to leave empty desks between each other; physical barriers may be built to safely separate workspaces.

“Taller dividers will become more apparent in workplaces, as will partitions,” Stein says. These partitions won’t necessarily be permanent; depending on the company, they may need to be adaptable to serve different business needs. Kirei offers non-permanent, non-damaging products—including the modular EchoPanel Wrap, Paling, and Platoon reconfigurable partition systems—that accommodate social distancing constraints while still encouraging collaboration and adapting to the evolving needs of the office; expect to see these and similar partitions in spaces where staying six feet apart isn’t an option.

Some experts predict the adoption of a more fluid workspace, where the traditional, owned desk is replaced by alternative workspaces and meeting spaces where workers can work on the few days they work from the office; the rest of the week, they’ll work remotely, so there’s no need for a permanent desk. Others say shared or temporary workspaces will be replaced by more individually owned ones to keep high-touch surfaces clean and avoid virus transmission. While both methods may be used in different workspaces, the experts agree: The open floorplan office isn’t going anywhere.

“There will be a lot of hype around redividing the office, but I think there will be a return to the trend we were already witnessing: mixed spaces in offices that reflect the different types of work,” Stein says.

Campbell and Hoffman of FCA agree, adding that open floorplans will be more deliberate, but still open—and even offer the added comfort of allowing workers to get a full view of the office landscape to know who else is there and where they are, making movement without close contact easier.

Bumping into a colleague from a different team in the hallway may be a thing of the past, at least for now. Many hallways—from the building entrance to the way to the bathrooms—will likely have directional signage directing people to walk in the same direction (a little like the arrows added to grocery store aisles). People may be encouraged to use side or back entrances or take the stairs to avoid crowding at entry points and on elevators; workers may be asked to stay at their desks as much as possible.

Verbeek and Colón both predict that wider stairs and circulation spaces, including corridors between workstations, will be used to give everyone more room to navigate, further distancing employees.

Many offices boast kitchens, coffee stations, cafeterias, and more food-related spaces where employees can gather, eat, and drink. Such a set-up, depending on the snacks offered, is considered a major work perk. Unfortunately, such public, shared spaces are ripe for contamination and virus transmission.

“Sadly, the snack revolution has run its course,” Grazi says.

Campbell and Hoffman predict that coffee machines, refrigerators, microwaves, and communal food offerings will be replaced by individually wrapped food products; Verbeek expects common areas will be cleaned frequently and lose seating to allow more distancing; Grazi guesses many customers will ask for signage to indicate how many people are allowed in common spaces; and Colón says many clients of Ted Moudis Associates are providing prepackaged food or having employees bring their own. In short, the way you eat and drink at work will change or be adapted to avoid crowding.

“In the near-term, we expect to see fewer seats in kitchens, snack areas, and conference rooms,” says Eric Stroud, vice president at Studio TK, which designs office furniture. “As we move into the various phases of reopening, we may see each of these spaces requiring reservations. As many companies consider work from home for some or all employees, or a rotational workforce, the traffic in these areas will be more consistent and planned. Café spaces may be dispersed throughout the floor plan, rather than confined to one room or area.”

Bid farewell to the office cafeteria or coffee break station; it’s not likely to be open again for some time.

With the knowledge that coronavirus can survive on certain surfaces, hands-free is the new way to go.

“We will definitely see hand sanitizing stations, PPE stations, hands-free devices such as foot and elbow door pulls, touchless technology such as faucets, and app-based, touch-free systems for reserving spaces,” Colón says.

Other updates may include touch-free thermometers for checking temperatures as people arrive at work and digital ID cards instead of physical ones. The less you touch at work, the better.

Whether any of these changes will be lasting remains to be seen.

Some experts, like Grazi, say they will be. “We expect to see these changes be permanent for two reasons,” he says. “First, businesses that need to reopen need to make these changes, and they are expensive changes that cannot be easily reversed. Second, this will affect the way we, as business owners and as people, think for the rest of our lives. Businesses will want to be ‘pandemic-ready’ and flexible by keeping these changes, or a variation of them, in play.”

As with anything else, some of these changes will fall out of practice as conditions shift; what remains will be our new normal, Stein says. What will change, though, is our proximity to others. Campbell and Hoffman say we will get closer to the people we work with again as the crisis fades, and nearly all our experts emphasized the importance of community, collaboration, and connection in office spaces. Supporting remote collaboration now and in-person interaction later, when it’s safe, is key.

“It is clear social connection is going to be more important than ever as we return to the workplace,” Stroud says.