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Will Coronavirus Be The Final Nail In The Coffin For The Open Office? 

Molly Povich  |  July 13, 2020

What will the open office even look like in the future, given COVID-19 precautions and in-office fears in workplaces across America? 

The open office has oft been roasted over the years — and with good reason. Most workers dislike working in a privacy-bereft fluorescent bullpen, and feeling constantly “seen” is exhausting. Distraction is all around, and productivity plummets. 

But now in the wake of coronavirus, we’re all wondering what the future holds for the open office — will it kill it once and for all? Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics, believes the open office was already dead. “Most companies have learned you can’t force people to sit in a big, noisy area and expect them to be effective. You have to give them options. People want a choice of where and when they work.”

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The pandemic-fueled exodus to remote work has given employees just that — more privacy and more freedom. But now, employers are scratching their heads, wondering what a return to the office will have to look like in order to protect employee health.

The pandemic has sprouted an insight. “Companies are now realizing that remote work… works.” says Lynn Taylor, workplace expert, author, and CEO of fashion brand Behind the Buckle.

With disease experts suggesting that a true virus-free office environment is unattainable, the solution for many employers may be having employees continue working from home, rather than dropping dollars to furnish the office in a way that could potentially be a mere illusion of safety.

But if you do return to the office, what might you expect? 

The gust of a single sneeze can launch droplets through an entire area — and open offices are no exception. Masks may be mandatory. Companies may invest in air filtration systems that are more hygienic (they push air down rather than up). Many offices will see the introduction of plexiglass “sneeze-guard” barriers, desks spaced 6 feet apart, and hand sanitizer everywhere. 

The open office has been criticized as a germ hotbed for years. “General hygiene has never been a bad thing,” notes Taylor. “Habits that will have been made mainstream because of the pandemic can help prevent the flu, or god forbid the next COVID.” 

Companies may adopt a “checkerboard” formation that staggers employees so you’re never directly facing anyone. They may stagger what days certain employees are in the office so there are fewer people in the space, which seems to be the simplest way to keep workers distanced and safe.

The question is whether any changes that are made will be permanent. Taylor thinks so. “Companies don’t like to invest in new configurations and furniture design and then change it up again,” she explains. Plus, some of the changes made to open office spaces (like the addition of barriers) will grant workers more privacy and space. Taylor says that will diminish some of the controversy of the open office.

We are now asking ourselves how big of a footprint the office should even take. The adoption of the open office configuration reduced that footprint (by pushing people closer together), and now the adoption of remote work could reduce it even more. 

“Companies are struggling with the questions: Why do we come back to the office? What is the office really for? How do we make it a space conducive to collaboration?” poses Lister. 

So, when is it important to be in-person? 

It’s possible you’ll only come into the office for meetings of a certain import, and spend the majority of your work life at home. Perhaps work spaces will be designated zones of (socially distant) collaboration, and home the place of concentration “My theory is that when you know you have a specific, limited amount of time to meet with others and get the job done, you’re going to be more productive,” says Taylor.

Whatever changes are in store, you’ll have to be patient with what will certainly be a process. “We’ve got about a year and a half of shake-out to go through,” says Lister. “I think both management and employees should realize that there are going to be bumps along the way as we take on this new workplace,” advises Taylor. “See the good in it and don’t focus on the downside. Accept that this is a new environment, and be communicative to each other about what’s working and what’s not, on both sides.” 


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