The desk and these other office features may never be seen again in a post-Corona world

As states begin reopening around the country in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s safe to assume that the office will be different.

How different? That remains to be seen, but expect changes in the interim.

For spaces like open offices — once dubbed the future of workspaces — will likely change. The breathability of an open office, where creative minds can flow, now seems like a breeding ground for any type of illness. As companies found ways to eliminate unneeded office space in order to maximize space and production, these modern offices created tighter working quarters. The tacky office couches and built-in cafe-like kitchens offered an outlet away from your desk to continue to work. A silent huddle room allowed a space to dive deeper or mingle about projects with your colleagues.

But these shared spaces come with a caveat: they are often used frequently by many workers throughout the day, which makes them targets for the possible spread of any virus.

While taking a bulldozer and mowing huddle rooms might seem like a quick fix, there’s going to be protocols and new standards to how both employees and offices approach work. As businesses have learned to adapt to remote working, there’s an argument to be made whether workers should even have to return to the office if they’ve shown they can maintain productivity at home. The adaptability by workers and companies during the COVID-19 crisis could make remote working a more feasible option in the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a massive upscaling and experiment in the workplace that has never been seen before. When once workers’ purpose was to enjoy the perils of a commute, sit with their head down and work for eight hours, and rinse-repeat until the next vacation, that concept now seems foreign. That, in itself, may make it time to reconsider the purpose of the physical office and what role it serves for employees.

“It’s proven that productivity output can be maintained,” Nabil Sabet, architect and group director at global design firm M Moser, told Ladders. “When that’s the reality where we’ve grown as a collective — this new skill — then the question becomes, ‘Why are you going into that space?’

“For the managers and leaders, it becomes, how are you measuring performance? Is it just by showing up or the true output? The ramifications are extremely profound on all levels, from leadership to the way office stations will be designed, to the way we look and value our workers on their output. All of these things will play a huge role.”

When workers do return to the office, safety measures like temperature checks and thermal body cameras could be spying on you. Hand sanitizer dispensers at every corner of the building? Probably. The days of managers chiding employees to work through a small cough will be over. But what about the small pleasures offices have instilled to create a better work-life balance? The freedom to roam to the pantry and mingle with colleagues over the office-favorite cold brew keg, the hard-to-book huddle room where the air conditioning blows just right — are those days behind us?

“In the interim, we’re going to see a lot of those areas – pantries, coffee rooms, those huddle areas – being reduced in terms of the occupancy,” Nabil said. “But I don’t see it being a long-term end to collaboration at all.”

Re-entering strategies

When doors reopen, one of the key components will be finding the balance between safety and productivity for workers.

As some may be wary to return to the office, Nabil said that there are two strategies that need to be enforced — re-entry and rethinking. The former is relatively quick and simple fixes, like social distancing and setting up sanitation protocols. In the physical office, measures like improving air quality, rethinking where we eat and gather, and taking a look at how we open and close doors. As for rethinking, that’s understanding what the workers’ role is inside the office and what purpose the office actually services, according to Nabil.

“That for sure is going to change,” he said.

Nabil said his staff surveys are a good way to gauge how the employee feels coming back to the office. While normal surveys tend to be spread across many months, he’s recently worked with clients to get an in-the-moment pulse on how workers feel right now and the best ways to accommodate them.

Occupancy?

Most offices will look to a phrased approach when opening doors again. Whether it’s by establishing different teams that work in the office or remotely, it’s designed to keep business going in case an outbreak does occur in the office. So occupancy becomes a factor.

Nabil said huddles rooms will need to be addressed immediately. Often used as collaborative pods with colleagues, huddle rooms tend to be a tight fit for four or five people to sit in very close proximity, and if six-feet social distancing measures are applied inside, that would mean that half of the group would likely be on the outside of the glass cube looking in.

Does that mean the death of the weekly gatherings? Not quite, says Nabil.

“The human need to collaborate, the human need to converse with your peers, that is something that is a necessity for us,” he said. “We’re all feeling the pains of not being able to do it. What will probably happen is the workplace itself is going to play a different role. Previously, it was a place where you could go and perform different tasks. Maybe it’s less of that and really geared toward collaboration, it’s really geared to the stuff you can’t do at home or a coffee shop. That focus drives the design in a great way.”

The death of the personal desk

You can usually tell a lot about your colleague by the way their desk appears.

There are the plant lovers who decorate like its the rain forest, filling the empty space with lazy leaves and succulents. The employee who has too many framed photos of family and pets that make a coworker feel awkward. The books lover who hoards the free-giveaway books only to never read them and let them grow taller and collect more dust. The messy-types who leave yesterday’s coffee uncovered until the cleaning crew sweeps by in the night.

The personalization of a desk once was your place in the office, your home away from home. But the days of leaving little novelties on your desk are likely going to be over.

“When cleaning crews come through in the off hours and clean those desks, they’re not moving everything. They’re cleaning that sliver between the keyboard or the monitor. This is an issue,” Nabil said.

Enter: depersonalization of space. Nabil said that depersonalizing desks might be the key to keeping sanitation and cleanliness the top priority in the office. Reducing clutter or even assigning daily rotating desks would encourage proper cleaning to be taken. The mission of rotating desks would ensure the desk is completely cleared and cleaned so someone can use it the following day.

“Before the depersonalization of space was about shrinking space getting more than one person to use a space,” Nabil said. “Now, it’s almost like it’s being driven from the cleanliness and sanitation perspective. It doesn’t make sense to have stacks and stacks of things. That’s going to be really interesting as people take down all those photos and plants away. Do you want people coming by and touching them?”