Courtesy of Cushman & Wakefield

Architects and property managers are studying once-unthinkable changes to office environments as corporate America envisions a gradual return to work in the COVID-19 era. 

Recent trends toward bench seating, unassigned desks and playful amenity spaces could be swept away by public health recommendations for an extended period of social distancing. Capacity of offices could be cut by 30 to 50 percent in the short term, as rolling work-from-home policies free up more space between redesigned workstations. Social spaces that companies once promoted as recruitment and retention tools could be among the first casualties in corporate space. 

“As much as they wanted to have jungle gyms and pool rooms in the middle of the office and create this very amicable dorm-like adult playground, their staff doesn’t need to be there,” said Andrew Franz, a New York City architect who, like the bulk of his colleagues, now works from home. 

The commercial real estate industry is just starting to come to grips with the implications of an extended period of social distancing, which could transform rituals governing a typical day at the office. 

Staggered work schedules could become more common to reduce congestion in lobbies and elevators, said Edward Vis, head of project and development services for Cushman & Wakefield. In lieu of cubicles or bench seating, two-person workstations would be separated by panels or acrylic screens. 

“We don’t think you’ll have the same density in the office as previously,” Vis said. “You could have 60 to 70 percent of the desks in the office [as before], but the rest will become obsolete.” 

Vis is based in the brokerage’s Amsterdam office, which is spearheading a three-week-old project to fortify workspaces in preparation for the eventual lifting of government-imposed shutdowns of non-essential businesses. 

Dubbed “The 6 Feet Office,” the initiative lays out six strategies for the new normal in offices. Arrows on floors point out clockwise traffic patterns, similar to those already being implemented in some retail stores, to avert face-to-face encounters and their risk of viral transmission. Markers on floors would delineate safe zones around workstations, warning colleagues to steer clear. Lis said costs per square foot of adopting the “6 Foot Office” recommendations will vary widely, depending upon the existing space. 

Tools to Re-Role Rooms  

Boston-based Elkus Manfredi Architects suggests clients consider its Harbor Stone System workstation, which contains adjustable acoustic dividers and individual desks that can be moved or reoriented in different directions. Designed by Elkus Manfredi and engineered by Los Angeles-based custom furniture designers Studio Other, the system was originally designed to “humanize” bench seating but has shown potential to maintain social distancing, said Elizabeth Lowrey, an Elkus Manfredi principal and director of interior architecture. 

Investing in new fixtures acknowledges the importance of the physical office environment, even as virtual applications such as Zoom meetings temporarily take their place, Lowrey said in an email. 

“We’ve tackled remote work and succeeded. Now we’re going to design ways of being together more safely,” she said. 

Huddle rooms used for small meetings on the perimeter of many tech and creative offices could be converted into private offices, similar to the traditional configuration of floor plates, said Arlyn Vogelmann, a principal at Gensler in Boston. 

“Huddle rooms typically accommodate four or five people and you would have one person in there and use it as flex office space, instead of being in an open workspace area,” Vogelmann said. “As teams are coming back in a phased way, you might have alternate days where your team comes in Tuesday and Thursday, and my team does Monday and Wednesdays, so people are getting some face time together.” 

Paging Dr. Fauci 

As public health authorities continue to study the ways that COVID-19 can spread, building managers and landlords will need more data on best practices in air exchange, Vogelmann said. Gensler is analyzing data from its clients in China from the early stages of the pandemic to determine requirements for air filtration systems. 

Tim Bailey, an associate partner at Boston-based Margulies Perruzzi, said architects are using guidance from experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to apply distancing strategies to office buildings. But commercial properties pose unique challenges because of the number of occupants and reliance on densely trafficked common areas.  

Steve Adams

“There is definitely going to be a logistical challenge for building owners, when you cannot pack six or eight people into an elevator,” Bailey said.

Cushman & Wakefield’s Vis said his firm’s 4-story building in Amsterdam has already imposed one workaround in that area: people leaving the upper floors now take the stairs. “You have to separate the traffic flows,” he said. 

Safe occupancy levels in conference rooms also will require a fresh look, said Karen Bala, director of design for Boston-based architects Dyer Brown. The firm is studying its own options for how many of its 50 employees will be able to return to work at once in their under-10,000-square-foot Financial District offices, as well as potential reconfiguration of amenity areas. 

“We have areas we don’t utilize full-time, but I could see us doing that right now and really spreading out, Bala said. We have a ‘speakeasy,’ and I could see one person working in it, frankly. 

Not Just Another Day at the Office

by Steve Adams time to read: 4 min