The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented changes and upset the very foundation of American life. As states begin the slow return to business-as-usual, many find themselves wondering what business-as-usual will look like now. After 9/11, the return to normal brought on a wave of increased security measures throughout the country that gradually became an unobtrusive aspect of everyday life. So, the question begs to be asked – what kind of new normal will the wake of COVID bring?
Despite what we have seen from past disasters, there is no standard practice for the changes that will be necessary post-pandemic. Cushman & Wakefield, a global commercial real estate services firm, hopes to provide those standards. They call the new plan the “6 Feet Office” and have already implemented the plan in their Amsterdam office. Some of the aspects of the Cushman & Wakefield model could become part of our new office normal include:
- Touch free hand sanitizing stations at the entrance: Already a widespread practice in doctor’s office, we will likely see a rise in such station – possibly at all high traffic doorways including bathrooms, cafeterias, and meeting rooms.
- Walking clockwise around the office: This practice, also used in hospitals, aims at close proximity reduction of coworkers by creating an official pattern for pedestrian travel.
- Partitions between desks: The new office will most likely discourage facing workstations. However, for offices in which that kind of spacing is not possible, large plexiglass partitions like the ones we’ve seen popping up around cashiers, can offer protection for small businesses.
- Disposable desk mats: Workers in the 6 Feet Office are instructed to take a disposable desk covering in the morning to reduce contamination of work surfaces. Workers are to dispose of the used mats at the end of the day.
- 6-foot distancing: There are already stickers, painted and/or printed signs encouraging distance safety at many public locations that have remained open. Cushman & Wakefield have taken this a step further by creating zones with different colored flooring around workstations showing, unequivocally, how close is too close.
Businesses all over our own country our testing out these measures and others in their search for the best practices. Some of the additional measures that may gain national traction include:
- Air filtration systems: One reason for the success of China’s return to work could be attributed to their air quality standards. Many of our domestic offices filter and recycle the air already in the building (complete with pathogens) as opposed to bringing in air from the outside. America lacks office air quality standards but as the COVID virus can remain airborne for up to three hours, the addition of physical divides and separation will not sufficiently prevent the spread of the virus in densely populated office. As a result, improved air filtration could become a major focus of the New Normal office building.
- Temperature taking: Food processing centers, warehouses, medical buildings, and distribution centers have begun the practice of widespread temperature taking to point out potentially infected workers and patients. This practice could be implemented in public buildings everywhere – particularly in places where masks are not required.
- Masks: The newly ubiquitous mask could be sticking around for a while. There are bound to be situations in which rigorous safety features cannot be implemented due to financial or logistical issues. These types of businesses may turn instead to face-covering requirements to keep their employees and customers safe.
- Elevator restrictions: Some high-rise buildings have seen the emergence of long elevator lines as capacity is restricted to only four people, each directed with signs to face a different wall. While this may be better from a safety perspective, allowing only four or five people in an elevator at a time could create a major bottleneck in city skyscrapers used by thousands of workers each day.
- Movement tracing: Cushman & Wakefield have installed beacons in the 6 Feet Office model to track the movement of employees through their cell phones. such tech, it would be possible to determine who has been exposed to COVID-positive employees, and also notify workers when they breach the invisible 6-foot barrier. In the U.S., Apple and Google have teamed up to work on an app and Zebra Technologies has a contact-tracing device currently in development, and is already promoting an app linking user cell phones to a central base, though it is as yet certain if privacy laws will prevent widespread implementation of such technology.
The situation we find ourselves in threatens recent office trends toward co-working spaces and open layouts. When all is said and done, we may find a shift away from office work entirely. According to a recent MIT study, 34.1% of commuters were able to switch to remote work in addition to the 14.6% of workers who were already doing so. This puts all the more pressure on organizations to rehabilitate the way they’ve been doing business. There will inevitably be mixed results, false starts, and evolving changes as offices worldwide attempt to nail down the best practice for reducing the spread of infection while keeping businesses profitable.