New Normal: Taped-off desks could be the future of the office space

By | June 12, 2020

TORONTO — Taped-off desks, lineups for elevators, one-way corridors, temperature checks, staggered start times, and hand sanitizing stations are just some of the ways the office is going to change for millions of Canadians when they head back to work.

The days of packed boardroom meetings, Monday to Friday commutes, workstations crammed together, and workplace social perks are over, at least until COVID-19 is reined in with a vaccine or effective treatments.

Many employers are requiring masks in the office, booking employees to only come in on alternating days, restricting the occupancy in meeting rooms, and putting up screens to block off workers from one another.

Some of the changes will likely last only as long as the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, but others may be here to stay, experts say.

They include a shift away from the open plan, no assigned seating office and a potential seismic shift to remote work, leading some to even speculate about the end of the traditional office.

Tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Shopify, have said their employees can work remotely forever if they choose. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says that in five to 10 years, half of the social media giant’s workforce will have no connection to an office at all.

But others say the heavy toll of isolation during the pandemic, the difficulties of collaborating and working in teams in a strictly online world, and the challenges of working from home, from poor office setups to distracting kids and spouses, have created a new appreciation – fondness even – for the office.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, people predicted that no one would want to return to the tops of Manhattan office buildings again, says Colin Scarlett, an executive vice-president at Colliers International. That turned out to be wrong.

And he says predictions that this pandemic will kill the office are misguided, too.

“The office is absolutely not dead and the office is not going away,” agrees Drew Hauser, director of design and business development at mcCallumSather Architects in Hamilton, Ont.

“But it is changing and it’s about time. It needed to.”

The pandemic, no matter how long it lasts, has “fast-forwarded changes in the workplace,” says Paula Allen, vice-president of research, analytics and innovation at human resources provider Morneau Shepell.

Employees need to prepare themselves for a workplace that looks and feels much different and more restrictive, and to find ways to accept the changes. She advises employees to express their thoughts and fears, to ask questions and to lean on others, but to also understand changes are driven by the advice of health officials to keep COVID-19 in check.

“We’re not going back to normal but it’s best not to focus on what is lost but to make the best of what we have.”

FEWER PEOPLE, MORE WAITING

It’s likely you’ll return to a workplace with far fewer people on-site, but yet you’ll do more waiting.

Expect lineups to get into your office building if temperature checks and symptom questionnaires are required. Limited ridership on elevators will likely lead to lineups there, too. The need to sanitize everything from printers and meeting tables, to microwaves and workstations between users will mean more waiting.

Expect lots of signs reminding you to physically distance, wash your hands and wipe down what you touch.

Toront-based real estate company Dream is recommending protocols for its tenants that include: daily temperature and symptom checks for employees coming to work; staggered start times to prevent crowding; no visitor policies; the removal of communal snack and beverage stations; and prominent signs reminding employees of physical distancing and handwashing.

Interior design firm Truspace, also based in Toronto, recommends: providing lockers for employee belongings; assigning seating; instituting maximum occupancies for meeting rooms, lunch rooms and other communal spaces; encouraging the use of technology rather than face-to-face conversations; controlling when employees take lunches and breaks; installing technology that allows for touchless and paperless offices; and even an on-site testing room to take temperatures and monitor symptoms each day.

Commercial real estate company Cushman and Wakefield’s suggestions include: a designated room to isolate anyone displaying symptoms; a clean desk policy; conversion of small rooms to single-occupant use only; and providing sanitizers, disinfectants and wipes to allow DIY cleaning.

Future offices could be entirely touchless, utilizing technology that would allow employees to call for the elevator or start the office coffee machine through an app on their phone, voice-activated equipment in conference rooms, doors that open with a wave, and high-tech vending machines, according to providers of touchless office environments.

Sensors embedded in desks could even monitor body temperatures and alert managers to someone who is potentially sick.

NO RUSH TO RETURN

Those returning to work at Canada’s largest law firm, Borden Ladner Gervais, must complete a self-assessment to come in each day and will undergo training about the office’s new rules, says chief administrative officer Didhiti Bhoumik.

They are being advised to expect lineups for elevators, one-way corridors and requirements to wear masks in all common areas and hallways.

The law firm is setting up hand sanitizing stations and requiring that only one person be in the washroom at a time. Employees will have to bring their own mugs and cutlery each day.

The firm will boost regular and deep cleaning frequencies and has worked with its landlords to enhance air flow and filtration, says Bhoumik, who is based in Toronto. It’s also installed clear barriers in its reception, mailroom and IT areas and will operate only one printing area to cut down on touchpoints.

Before the pandemic hit, most of the more than 2,000 employees at BLG worked five days a week in the office, but a workplace survey during lockdown showed that a large percentage want to work from home from one to four days a week. Only a small percentage never want to come in going forward, says Bhoumik.

Slowly, beginning in offices in Vancouver and Calgary, lawyers began to trickle back to the office, but Bhoumik says employees are welcome to continue working from home for as long as they need or want.

“We’ve said from the very beginning that there is no rush to return.”

FORMING HABITS

Staff in the 48 offices of real estate services giant Colliers Canada are being given the choice to work from home, come back to the office, or do both, says Robyn Baxter, vice-president of workplace strategy and innovation. A survey of the company’s 2,200 employees found just over 50 per cent wanted to come back in some capacity in the first phase of reopening, she says.

The company’s offices in Winnipeg, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina and Edmonton have been the first to reopen, with occupancies of about 30 per cent. Vancouver and Victoria will be next. Staff have mostly returned in teams and the company has instituted an alternating day schedule, and in some cases, staggered start times.

Managers keep track of who is in the office each day and staff are required to wear masks from the street to their desk and in any common areas of the office. They must also adhere to one-way hallways that are marked with arrows on the floor.

“We have had some pushback with people asking why they need masks when there are only three people in the office and we get that,” Baxter said to CTVNews.ca from Calgary. “It can seem extreme right now, but in Phase 2, whether that’s over the summer or in the fall, there will be more people coming in and we will need to rely on these habits.”

Colliers has a mix of individual offices, shared offices and assigned workstations in an open area. The existing layout and density required only minimal modifications in a few offices to allow for physical distancing.

But as more people return to work at Colliers and other businesses in office towers, Baxter says a real challenge is going to be elevators. Generally, they can accommodate two to four people, who will stand on floor markings. Baxter says those in her office tower ask people to stand facing the wall if others are on board.

Accounting firm Deloitte is still working out plans and timetables for the return to work of 12,000 employees in 53 offices, says Karen Pastakia, a partner in human capital consulting.

When they come back and how often they will be in the office will be up to individual employees, she told CTVNews.ca from her home office in Toronto.

The company is working out how best to optimize its open-floor plan office space, and looking into using technology to monitor and trace worker health, she says.

Roughly about 10 per cent of its employees are expected to return right away, with gradual grow to about 75 per cent in a third stage of reopening.

The key, through all of this time of change, is surveying employees about their needs and what safety measures they would like to see, and constantly adapting based on feedback, says Pastakia.

“We need to ensure people are comfortable where they are and how they are working and that whatever we do, it’s done in a way that’s informed.”

THE CULTURE FACTOR

Even if many employees spend less time in them going forward, how office space builds a business isn’t going to change, says Colin Scarlett, an executive vice-president at Colliers in Vancouver.

“Space has always been, and will always be, a weapon in the war for talent. When you think about the culture of an organization, a lot of it is tied to a physical environment. An office is an enabler of culture.”

Never going in to work doesn’t suit most people, says Allen at Morneau Shepell.

“When people work full-time in the office or full-time at home, their mental health is not as good as those doing both,” she told CTVNews.ca in a phone from her Toronto home.

A hybrid work week allows for seeing your child’s school play, while also working alongside colleagues. Many younger workers who are just starting a career and may be living alone depend on workplace social interaction and crave the face-time with senior mentors, Allen says.

Scarlett has a pretty sweet home-office setup, with a sit-stand desk and a big monitor in a spacious, light-filled room with a great view. What he doesn’t have is a door, so he’s often left apologizing for the loud voices of his two children.

Colin ScarlettColin Scarlett, executive vice-president at Colliers, in his home office in Vancouver. (Courtesy Colin Scarlett)

What he also doesn’t have is the buzz of people working together or the spontaneous opportunity to talk shop with colleagues.

He sees a future in which office space is much more bespoke and design-driven to maximize the experience of being physically at work. And he predicts that many people who are happy working from home right now may not be when others return.

“It may come to a degree of fear of missing out and I think missing the social side of things.”

THE END OF THE OPEN OFFICE?

Forty years ago, the average office allowed for 325 square feet per employee, but that has continually shrunk since to about 75 to 80 square feet today, says Scarlett, who produced a report called The 100 Years of the Office.

The so-called open office of unassigned workstations – sometimes called the hotdesk or hotelling office – is partly the result of skyrocketing real estate costs in urban centres, partly a nod to a more egalitarian concept of the office, and partly due to more time spent working outside the office.

But Terry Hickey, president of e3 Office Furniture in Dartmouth, N.S., thinks the fad is over in a COVID-19 world. His employees work in traditional cubicles. They have privacy when seated but can easily connect with colleagues by standing up to talk or walking around the partitions, he says.

“Everything that’s been promoted about the open office and hoteling and hotdesking over the last 10 years is looking obsolete now.”

Open desks are now being outfitted with barriers to protect those sitting side by side from each other, says Hickey. In other cases, companies are simply blocking off stations to stagger where people can sit.

There was already evidence before COVID-19 that employees working in open-plan offices called in sick more often.

And in Seoul, 94 of 216 people who worked together in an compact open-plan call centre tested positive for respiratory illness after one worker showed symptoms.

“I do think this will change the office environment forever,” says Hickey. “It’s this virus this time around, but the next virus will need the same controls in the office.”

David Zweig, who teaches organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto, also thinks COVID-19 might mark the end of the open-office experiment. He says many employees don’t like it.

“When everyone is working side by side, it’s difficult to engage in cognitively complex work because there are constant distractions. And we are territorial animals. We like to mark out our space.”

But Scarlett says open, unassigned seating office is far from dead. If people are spending more time working from home, it makes the approach even more practical, he says. And health concerns can be managed through booking systems for desks that allow for windows for sanitization or agreements that workers are required to sanitize a workstation as they leave.

He adds that open floor plans allow for a much easier reconfiguration of workstations to increase space between them.

“I just don’t think you will see most employers make radical changes to their workplaces that require a lot of capital. There is just too much uncertainty out there about the future of this virus.”

Hauser at mcCallumSather Architects says its open office has won converts out of skeptics.

It designed its 10,000-square-foot space within a fully renovated 103-year-old brick building, tossing out individual offices and assigned desks, giving employees a locker for personal items, and setting up first-come-first-serve workstations.

The focus is adaptable meeting and collaboration spaces of various sizes, and as few enclosed spaces as possible.

Though there was plenty of resistance to the office concept at first, says Hauser, within a year even the biggest critics were onboard.

“For us, the office is a meeting hub, and a place for collaboration and research. It’s also important for our recruitment, because it’s really a reflection of our culture. It’s where people will learn and interact.”

But when it comes time to working on tasks and delivering on projects, that work may best be done remotely, says Hauser.

“I know for me, when I have to have my nose to the grindstone, I’m so much better focused when I’m working at home.”

FOCUS ON CLEANING

Every employer bringing workers back promises deeper and more frequent cleaning, but few define what that means, says Isvar Prashad, president of national janitorial company Carter Benette Group.

Few companies give much thought to cleaning except when looking to cut costs, he says, even though clean environments improve employee health and productivity.

“I hope it does change going forward, but I haven’t seen evidence of that yet,” says Prashad, who is working from a makeshift office in the laundry room of his Toronto home.

“People have been getting sick at the office from bacteria and viruses forever, but nobody took it seriously.”

He expects to see workers set up cleaning auditing committees to evaluate cleaning protocols and monitor the cleanliness of their workplaces, perhaps using technology to track germs.

“Employees are going to demand that the six feet around them doesn’t get them sick.”

THE END OF FUN AT WORK?

Bhoumik at law firm BLG says the company placed a premium on keeping its people connected during the pandemic lockdown, through virtual coffee meetings, yoga lessons and lunchtime talks, and an initiative to collectively walk the distance between Canada’s east and west coast.

Bhoumik says she believes those relationships, along with the firm’s office environments that focus on design, natural light, air quality, and connections to nature – will be even more important to employees going forward.

Borden Ladner GervaisThe Innovation Zone at Borden Ladner Gervais in Toronto is now set up for physical distancing. (Courtesy Borden Ladner Gervais)

“People won’t go back to sit in the office and just work. They can do that at home. They will want more when they come back. They will want to learn and collaborate and connect in the office.”

Many employers, especially in the tech and digital spaces, have created funky workplaces with writable walls, comfy couches, foosball and ping pong, rooftop patios and margarita happy hours.

But with all the physical distancing and concern over health, does COVID-19 mark the end of fun at work?

Allen at Morneau Shepell doesn’t think so. She’s actually hopeful the fun will be more meaningful and more geared to what employees need to feel engaged and valued.

A “silver lining” of the pandemic is that employers have never been more concerned about the well-being, mental health and work-life balance of their employees, she says.

“If I put that up against a foosball table, there is no competition.”

THE PEOPLE FACTOR

The reality of the new office is that plans, rules and reminders are all well and good but the “people side of this is the great unknown. What are we going to do if people don’t behave?” wonders Baxter at Colliers. Some might feel their right to protect their own health is being overridden by rules they think go too far.

Colliers has indicated that those who violate the restrictions could face discipline, but Baxter expects education, constant reinforcement, and good old peer pressure will keep transgressions to a minimum.

One thing she hopes will permanently change out of all this is that people will just stay home whenever they feel under the weather. “It should be just an obvious thing to do with no questions asked. And if you do come into the office with the sniffles, you are shunned and sent home.”

Edited by Senior Producer Mary Nersessian

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