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Will COVID-19 Change the Way Workplaces Look?

By Maurie Backman – Apr 30, 2020 at 9:18AM

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Packing people into tight spaces may not fly once remote workers are ready to return to the office.

As a full-time freelance writer, it's admittedly been a long time since I've worked in an actual office. But the last time I did, I remember sharing an oversized table-turned-desk with five other people, sans walls or barriers. The result? Every time one of my desk-mates took a personal phone call, I was privy to the details of his or her life. Every time a desk-mate brought in an offensive lunch, I was forced to endure the smells. And every time one of my desk-mates came in with a cold, I cursed under my breath most of the day in anticipation of getting sick myself.

Thankfully, I no longer have an office to report to, but a lot of Americans do. Many people who are working from home right now won't be allowed to do so indefinitely. And despite the perks of working remotely, some jobs aren't as conducive to it as others.

Bustling office, with people sitting at computers and others standing over them


So what will workplaces look like once the COVID-19 crisis winds down? Will the packed spaces many workers are used to continue to fly, or will companies need to invest in actual breathing room for the people on their payroll?

What will office looks like after COVID-19?

Though many companies have shunned the classic cubicle setup in favor of more open layouts, "open" does not necessarily imply "room to spread out." In fact, it's easy to argue that cubicles, though less conducive to collaboration and conversation, provide more protection from germs in offices where desks are pushed up against each other for space-conservation purposes.

So will COVID-19 spark a cubicle revival? Maybe. But also, that may not be good enough.

What about meeting rooms? At my old company, we'd pack a few dozen people into a tiny, sweaty space on the regular. In today's health-conscious environment, it's hard to imagine that will continue to fly. And what about other shared spaces like break rooms, lunch areas, and even restrooms? What steps will companies take to help their employees spread out and stay safe?

Right now, employers have a challenge on their hands, and the solution may boil down to securing larger offices. But that's a costly ask, and with stay-at-home orders still in full effect, scoping out rentals is off the table.

What companies can do, for starters, is be more mindful of the ways they can encourage employee distancing as they slowly but surely move their workforce back to the office. For one thing, they can stagger schedules so that fewer employees are in the office at once. They can also see about shifting some employees into full-time remote arrangements.

Another important move employers need to make is being both generous and understanding with sick time. By allowing workers to take time off when they're under the weather without facing backlash or hits to their paychecks, companies can foster a healthier environment for the people who show up to work.

And then, of course, there are those common sense measures that many companies already employ -- think installing sanitizer dispensers throughout the office and cleaning shared spaces regularly. Equipping each individual desk with a canister of disinfecting wipes wouldn't hurt, either. Nor would providing employees with face masks, at least initially.

It's too soon to tell when remote work mandates will come to an end, and much will depend on locale. Some cities may see their office complex parking lots start to fill up sooner, while areas with high levels of COVID-19 activity will likely take a lot longer to reopen. But one thing's for sure: Workplaces may look a lot different once we're ready to return to them.

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