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Before Offices Reopen, Companies Should Consider Renovating These 5 Areas


Even if states lift their stay-at-home orders in the coming weeks, employees who have been working remotely won't be returning to the same offices. To keep employees safe while the coronavirus is still a threat, offices will need to look and operate very differently than they did before March.

First, companies will need to implement social distancing measures — perhaps by encouraging workers to navigate the office in a single direction, use single-use desk mats and keep at least 6 feet apart at all times. But in addition to changing employee behavior, companies may also need to rethink the physical design, layout and use of their office spaces.

“It’s not going to be as simple as rearranging the furniture and handing out bottles of sanitizer,” said Clay Edwards, executive vice president at Skender, a Chicago-based construction firm that is consulting with clients on renovations to promote healthy distancing. “If you’re going to ask them to come into the office, employees need to feel safe. That probably means physical renovations. The stay-at-home extension gives corporations extra time to make updates without disruption.”

In a poll of attendees in a recent Bisnow webinar, 23% of Chicago office decision-makers anticipated they would require office renovations or updates in order to help keep workers safe from the coronavirus, while 20% said they are planning to renovate their offices within the next 18 months. Here are five areas Edwards thinks will be the most crucial for companies to reconsider:

1. Reception and Entryways

To make entrances welcoming, open-plan office designers often eschewed physical barriers between the outside and the workspace, or did away with reception areas entirely. But now, companies may want to put up a few barriers.

“Reception still needs to be welcoming, but it also has to serve as a reminder that beyond this point, people have to play by the new rules,” Edwards said. 

Having a separate designated room for deliveries and another for visitors could also help with distancing. The reception area will also likely become a place for employees to sanitize their hands, pick up any equipment they need for the day, like a disposable desk mat, or have their temperatures taken before they are allowed to enter.

Installing glass walls can keep visual connectivity while reducing the danger that pathogens will drift in from outside the office. Edwards also suggested adding keycard-operated automatic doors, which reduce the need for employees to touch shared surfaces.


2. Food Storage and Break Areas

Often, the closest contact employees have with one another is when they leave their desks to eat lunch or pour themselves a cup of coffee. A crowded, chatting lunch table could turn into a worrisome spot for virus transmission.

Dividing up large break areas and monitoring how they are accessed can keep employees safely distanced. Edwards also suggested installing smaller pantry areas with microwaves, small refrigerators and coffee machines throughout the office to keep employees from congregating in one spot.

3. Audiovisual Equipment

“When offices reopen, everyone can’t come rushing back in,” Edwards said. “Remote work and digital collaboration will likely stay the norm for almost half of employees when offices open their doors.”

Having the tools to promote digital work, including wall-mounted monitors and cameras in conference rooms, can facilitate more natural collaboration. During a Bisnow webinar, 23% of Chicago office decision-makers said they were planning on investing in more audiovisual equipment.

With so many of their colleagues working remotely, employees may also rely more heavily on enclosed workspaces and small conference rooms to take calls. Building out a new row of phone booths can serve a double purpose of boosting collaboration and health, Edwards said.

4. Lighting and HVAC

Offices should already be equipped with HEPA filters throughout their heating and cooling equipment, but Edwards said companies can take further steps. By installing ultraviolet lights within HVAC systems, offices can reduce airborne pathogens throughout the office.

Since the distance that coronavirus particles can travel through the air is still a subject of debate, it may also be effective to install UV lighting in highly trafficked areas like entrances and corners. In some offices, this may be as simple as replacing a few bulbs, Edwards said, but in others, it could involve entirely new fixtures. 

“Fortunately, these sorts of changes will stay useful beyond the coronavirus era,” he said. “Improving air quality is a large component of many office wellness programs.”


5. Open Office, Benching and Bullpens

The most obvious change offices need to make is also the most critical — making sure employees are adequately spread out. 

Many of the benching systems that open offices rely on can simply be broken up and spaced out 6 feet apart, but some offices may need a heavier lift to accommodate their needs, either through constructing new dividers between desks or converting old shared spaces into work pods that space out employees.

While 30% of attendees to the above Chicago office webinar anticipated they would need less office space in the future — either because of a lower headcount or remote work policies — 13% expected they would need more space to allow employees to spread out, and 13% plan to invest in more private offices.

Whatever solution companies choose, Edwards said, they should make the materials resilient and easy to clean on a daily basis. 

“We shouldn’t expect these to be just temporary fixes,” Edwards said. “Companies should undertake the renovation work that they think can carry them past this crisis, not just through it.”

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and Skender. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.