photo: an open-plan office
About 7 out of 10 offices share an open-plan design like this. It is hardly ideal for halting contagion. Geoff Doran/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

Even before coronavirus, many workers hated the open-plan office. Now that shared work spaces are a public health risk, employers are rethinking office design.

The call center on the 11th floor of this 19-story office building in downtown Seoul had a layout that would look familiar to many a white-collar worker: Long rows of shared desks line each side of the open floor, with a handful of smaller meeting rooms and private offices tucked into the corners. On February 25, one of the 216 people who worked on the floor started experiencing symptoms of coronavirus. Swiftly, a cluster of cases began to ping-pong across the office, until the government caught wind and the building was shut down.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked down anyone who lived in, worked in, or had visited the office and apartment development, revealing the path of the virus as it leapt from warm body to warm body. Of the more than a thousand people they tested, 97 had contracted Covid-19. Nearly all of them worked together on the 11th floor. An infection map released by researchers showed that one side of the room, filled with lines of tables where at least six employees sat on each side, was hit hardest. In all, 94 of the 216 densely-packed employees tested positive for the disease, the cases scattered across the office like a checkerboard.

Floor plan of the 11th floor of “building X,” site of a coronavirus disease outbreak in Seoul, South Korea. Blue coloring indicates the seating places of persons with confirmed cases. (Park SY, Kim YM, Yi S, Lee S, Na BJ, Kim CB, et al. Coronavirus disease outbreak in call center, South Korea. Emerg Infect Dis. 2020 Aug.)

For companies now hoping to invite employees back to work, that infection map serves as a sobering blueprint: The open-plan office that so many companies have adopted in recent years looks like an extreme public health hazard.

Open offices were popularized in the 1980s as a scheme to lower real estate costs and break down divisions between teams; with fewer walls, bosses can claim they’re emphasizing transparency and collaboration while maximizing their square footage per employee. Despite evidence-based complaints that the layout is distracting and noisy, hampers productivity, and actually discourages in-person interaction, by 2017, 7 in 10 offices had adopted the model. (Among the proponents of open-plan office design is Bloomberg LP, the parent of CityLab, and the company’s founder and majority owner, Michael Bloomberg.)

Coronavirus introduces a new challenge to the primacy/tyranny of the open office. In the short term, architects, designers, property managers and public health professionals say that pretty much every aspect of this kind of workspace will have to change, to get fewer people inside it at a time. But don’t mourn — or celebrate — its death yet: A pivot to walls is probably still a long way away.

“From the standpoint of making significant physical changes, everyone’s in a sort of wait-and-see mode,” said Chris Coldoff, a principal and studio leader in the Los Angeles office of the architecture and design firm Gensler. (He’s been working at home for the past 8 weeks and counting.)

Rather than investing in costly remodels, organizations are now trying to reconfigure existing spaces, with an eye towards keeping employees safe from infection and giving them the peace of mind needed to return. “Companies are basically planning for Covid to be a part of our lives and the way we work for at least the next 18, to 24, to 36 months — until there is a vaccine or treatment,” said Brian Chen, co-founder and CEO of ROOM, a company that makes soundproof phone booths for open offices.

Most essential workers have not had the luxury to wait at home as their employers figured out how to safely allow them to do their jobs: They’ve been risking infection to show up in hospitals, grocery stores, and other critical workplaces since the pandemic began. But open-plan office jobs will be some of the last to return as local economies sputter back to life, because many of the white-collar industries that favor the design find it easier to do their work remotely. They have more time to get it right.

The first and most important push is to reduce density. Instead of squeezing eight employees onto a bench desk, office designers are advising companies to seat just three; instead of bringing outside clients deep into the office for meetings, they’ll be routed into low-trafficked side rooms (or not invited in at all). Alternate desks will have clear signage marking them off-limits. New signs outside break-out rooms will announce adjusted maximum occupancy levels. All-hands team meetings might be broken up into virtual and physical components, where only four people gather in conference rooms and the others tune in from farther-flung desks or from home. Elevators might hold six people, and likely fewer; in the lobbies of high-rises, employees will queue before entering.

What Gensler’s Oakland office might look like, when employees start coming back. (Gensler/Jasper Sanidad)

All this leaves offices with a geometry problem: How are they supposed to safely space out their old workforce, with the same amount of square footage? The short answer is, they’re not. At least not for a while.

Bergmeyer, a design collaborative with open-plan offices in Boston and L.A., is currently planning to invite employees back to work on Monday, May 18, but the return will be done in phases. In the Boston office, people will come back in three waves, over three-week cycles. About a third of the office will be sorted into each wave, and divided in two again: half will come in Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and the other half on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If people want to avoid rush hour on public transit, managers are suggesting people stagger their arrivals each day, just making sure they’re around during “peak business hours” — from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time, when workers on both coasts are online.

“It was like a giant chess board, trying to figure out how to take into account each one of our employees’ preferences, but also make some sort of regularity to it,” said Rachel Zsembery, Bergmeyer’s vice president.

(Courtesy Bergmeyer)

To help organizations structure phased returns, Gensler developed a tool called “ReRun,” which uses an office floor plan to calculate how many people a given space can fit, and where they could sit, depending on how much space is desired between each of them. “It’s something that our clients were struggling with and doing manually,” said Coldoff. “Some had millions of square feet, and they’re going in with measuring stick trying to figure out how many people they can fit.”

In total, workplaces are looking to reduce capacity by 50% to 60%, says Lenny Beaudoin, the executive managing director of a CBRE team that leads workspace strategy. Now offices are figuring out how to subdivide their workforces. Some staffers need to come back to the office (because their work demands it), and others might want to come back (because they miss their desk or their commute or their colleagues); on the other side of the ledger are those who don’t want to come back, don’t need to, or simply can’t, because of concerns like childcare.

Flexibility is an approach favored by offices big and small: In advance of an expected loosening of social distancing requirements in the Bay Area, Facebook announced that all its employees can work from home for the rest of the year. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that some employees can work from home indefinitely.

To accommodate teams that might have some members staying remote and others coming into the office, “Zoom rooms” may become fixtures of the coronavirus workplace. Bergmeyer is turning all of its smaller conference rooms into video chat spaces, for example, and experimenting with backgrounds that work well for remote meetings.

Arrows show the suggested flow of traffic around Bergmeyer’s open office space. (Courtesy Bergmeyer)

The Netherlands branch of Cushman and Wakefield, a real estate company, developed a plan for spacing out employees by putting round stickers on the floor showing what a six-foot berth really looks like. Bergmeyer has a similar series of branded signs that will direct the flow of traffic around the space, Zsembery says.

Six-foot distance isn’t a foolproof infection guard, however, and the protocols extend beyond density reduction. CBRE is advising landlords to up their ventilation circulation (and paying for the extra energy necessary to do it), and install new air filtration systems. New hand sanitizing stations need to be mounted, and new schedules need to be drawn up for janitorial staff to deep clean. Coldoff expects to see a turn towards touchless everything: personal keyfobs will open doors, personal handsets will do the job of corded phones; no more shared desktops or computer mice.

Then there’s the office kitchen, that germ-intensive zone of water-cooler chatter and sticky microwaves. Pantries will be a challenging task in post-pandemic workplace rethinks, but for now, bring-your-own caffeine is the plan at Bergmeyer: The coffee maker won’t come back into action until at least mid-July.

***

There’s a deeper question that needs to be solved at the heart of this effort to virus-proof the open office. What, exactly, is so valuable about working together in the same physical space? If the goal is to again nurture in-person collaboration, office design will have to find ways of making such face-to-face interactions feel safe and comfortable again.   

“If you can do the same work at home, the burden on the office is that it needs to be a better environment than your home,” said ROOM’s Chen.

Since the spray released by speaking is believed to be particularly likely to spread coronavirus, auditory and visual privacy is taking on on new importance. Pre-Covid open offices also struggled with this dilemma. You’re breathing on your colleagues, but you’re also listening to their every chew and smelling their ramen; their personal phone calls pierce your concentration just as often as their backpack gets caught under your chair leg. The Band-Aid fix for an increasing number of offices that tore down walls are portable phone booths: encased pods that are, ostensibly, soundproof.

But there’s already less of an appetite for shared, often poorly ventilated, enclosed micro-offices. Room and Zenbooth, another office phone booth company, reported plummeting orders as offices shuttered; Zenbooth reported half of its previously forecast sales in March, and about 40% of what it planned for April. (They are, however, getting a lot more requests for pod deliveries to private homes, as remote workers are installing them in garages and living rooms as an escape hatch from kids or roommates.)

Both companies have pivoted their operations to other forms of modular furniture and room dividers, which they predict will have more of a central role in the post-pandemic office. Zenbooth has also turned its attention to the health care space, manufacturing plexiglass sneeze guards and dividers for essential businesses, and for medical workers interacting with patients. Similar designs will be appearing in other kinds of offices, says Sam Johnson, Zenbooth’s CEO: “You don’t want to be breathing into your colleague’s face.”

Floor-to-ceiling plexiglass dividers could help reduce the airborne transmission of Covid-19, says CBRE’s Beaudoin, but such measures may have more of a psychological effect. Installing them could also be counterproductive, he suggested, lowering vigilance to other distancing and sanitizing considerations.

The design of the dividers will matter, too, Johnson says. Far from replicating boxed-in cubicles, he thinks effective dividers should be translucent or semi-translucent. “If workplaces protect their workers, they have to be careful not to over-protect them in a way that’s harmful,” he said. “We’re all physically separated at the moment, and that’s causing all sorts of psychological issues. We don’t want to go back into a workplace where it feels like we’re in a prison.”

There are other, non-design-related things employers can do to support anxious workers. (Providing ample sick leave, for example, can help encourage people who aren’t feeling well to avoid the workplace.) But no matter what, returning to the office after a long period away is probably going to feel weird, says Dr. K. Luan Phan, the chair of Ohio State University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health.

“As people return to work or they return to public spaces, they’re always going to wonder, are there enough precautions in place that make me feel good about this return?” said Phan. “Are there safeguards in place that make me feel better about all the work that I put in these last two or three months to be safe and be healthy?”

Friendly floor stickers remind workers to keep their distance. (Courtesy Bergmeyer)

The key is to communicate what’s changing, and how. “It’s got to be consistent, transparent, and it ultimately has to be true,” says Phan.

Zsembery says that Bergmeyer, like so many individuals and households and companies during this unusual time, is trying to remain flexible in case new waves of infection require re-shuttering the office in the winter, or sooner.

“Some people are ready today, to come back,” said Zsembery, “and there are people that aren’t going to be ready for another four or five months.”

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