Employers mull changes for post-pandemic "office of the future"

Tech giants Facebook, Twitter and Square have all announced they are offering permanent work-from-home options for many of their employees.  As states begin to re-open their economies, other employers are exploring ways to protect workers in offices and other spaces. 

If you want a glimpse at what offices might look like in a post-pandemic world, just take a look at the orders at HAT Contract in Santa Clara.  

“All we have done is field calls from customers wanting to take their open space environment and divide it as much as they can," said Brian McNay, HAT's founder.  "So people can work closely together and still be secluded from the guy next to them.”

McNay started the company with a focus on height-adjustable desks, moving to full office manufacturing. But as businesses explore limiting potential exposure of COVID-19, HAT's producing thousands of office dividers of all the types of materials. "The biggest challenge is, some of these clients are large customers, and they’re wanting 20, 30, 40,000 dividers," said McNay.  "We’re trying to respond to all of this.”

Andrew Cicisly, the western sales manager for HAT, says this change represents a return to how offices looked before the advent of the open office setting. “From 2010 to now, panels had gone away, division of space has gone away, more coffee bars, more lounge areas, all open," said Cicisly. "And now, this post pandemic, we’re seeing the dividers go back up.”

Office architect Carol Sandman knows the evolution of the office well. Her firm, AP+I works with major names in tech, many of whom she says are looking for ways to adjust to the new normal.  “Trying to help them in looking at how they can provide social distancing, by either having a staggered work force, half and half," said Sandman.  "So many companies have benching.”

Sandman's presented clients with different options for reconfiguration to utilize space, while maintaining social distancing. Epidemiologist and CEO of EHE Health, Dr. David Levy says dividers can be helpful, but aren't as effective as a combination of changing behaviors. He says employers need to use as many tools as possible to limit transmission, especially from asymptomatic carriers. Dr. Levy says the best way to battle the virus is understanding it. “When you’re in the environment: daily asking questions, daily taking temperatures, daily seeing if people had contact, you whittle it down and whittle it down," said Dr. Levy. 

While businesses mull ideas, one thing contractors, architects and doctors say we should expect is more people continuing to work from home. "If your office works perfectly well without coming into the office, everyone’s doing well at home, why come in?" asked Dr. Levy.

There's no question COVID-19 has already changed how many places do business.  Many department and grocery stores have put up plexiglass barriers at the register, require employees to wipe of pin pads and social distance markers have been placed on the ground. 

HAT Contract says it's a bit of a moving target as companies explore their options, but say they're adapting just like the offices. “We’re hearing some of the large tech clients are going to move in 25% of their staff initially, so they have more social distancing and buy them time to figure out how to readjust their footprints," said Cicisly.