The COVID-19 pandemic may usher in a slew of unexpected changes to the new workspace — but a desk with a sneeze guard?
Small tweaks like this will be the new norm for many organizations looking to put workers back into the office, said Antonia Cardone, senior managing director of workplace strategy and change management at Cushman & Wakefield, a global commercial real estate company.
An invisible yet highly infectious threat, the coronavirus has forced companies to be more proactive in ensuring employees' health and safety in ways that go deeper than protection from sharp objects and fire hazards.
"We used to think of safety as being a very visible, tactile sort of risk," Cardone said. "We used to think of health and well-being as being something that the individual took care of themselves: Are you fit; are you exercising; are you eating well, etc.?"
Now more than ever before, employers must think in granular detail about how workers interact within the workplace environment and how they can be protected while in it — everything from the objects they touch to the meeting rooms in which they convene.
But the office of the near future won't look radically different.
Plexiglas shields, occupancy limits in meeting rooms and elevators, signage and floor markings encouraging 6-foot physical distance, and the temporary death of buffet-style cafeterias are some of the physical changes that employees can expect in the foreseeable future, Cardone said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recently published a comprehensive guide on what employers and workers should do to safely re-enter office buildings, many of which are similar to Cushman & Wakefield's proposals.
The recommendations are extensive — from increasing outdoor airflow through heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and rearranging employees' work shifts to replacing "high-touch communal items" such as coffee makers and snacks with "pre-packaged, single-serving items" and wearing face masks, according to the CDC guidelines.
"I think in the short term, we will use (offices) slightly differently, but most organizations will leave it mostly as it is," Cardone said.
At WeWork, for example — one of the largest providers of coworking office space that leases a building on Park Boulevard in Palo Alto — the company won't be putting walls within its barrier-reduced space just yet.
As a champion of the modern open office plan, the real estate giant is instead considering "de-densifying" options such as "seat-to-seat distancing," where a four-person seating arrangement turns into a two-person area. Other plans include reducing capacity in meeting rooms and limiting work booths to one person, according to the company's guide to reopening its locations.
But while the changes at the desk may be subtle, getting into and working around the office might feel a little more invasive.
For example, temperature screenings at the entrance and exit could be implemented to determine whether an employee can come to work. In March, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission added temperature checks as an acceptable precaution employers can take while complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the practice could last throughout the pandemic.
"(Temperature checks) will be pertinent as long as there is a public health crisis, according to the CDC and state and local health authorities," Christine Nazer, a spokeswoman for the Equal Employment commission, said in an email.
The CDC also recommends "virtual health checks" such as temperature screening in its guidelines.
Some companies are offering digital surveillance tools that help employers monitor their workers' health. Kastle Systems, a security services provider, recently developed a system that includes thermal cameras that reveal body temperatures and video surveillance that tracks personal contact between employees. With it, people can be notified through an app if they've been in contact with someone at work who has tested positive for COVID-19.
At a virtual town hall meeting hosted by Stanford University School of Medicine, David Studdert, professor of medicine and law, said an immunity certification program — already in use by the Chilean government and being considered by the White House — also could be an option for the private sector.
The certificates would essentially act like passports that provide proof of immunity from the coronavirus, which could be used to exempt a person from restrictions, such as the ban on social gatherings and going into work.
Studdert pointed to several legal and ethical concerns with such a program, however, including fair access for workers. Getting a certificate would require the person to have access to testing, Studdert said, and the certificate could turn into a new form of "social apartheid."
In addition, the World Health Organization released a report last month stating there aren't sufficient findings that people who recover from COVID-19 will be protected from a second infection.
"There is not enough evidence about the effectiveness of antibody-mediated immunity to guarantee the accuracy of an 'immunity passport,'" the report stated. "People who assume that they are immune to a second infection because they have received a positive test result may ignore public health advice. The use of such certificates may therefore increase the risks of continued transmission."
Some firms, notably tech companies such as Google, have already embraced the home office, extending full-time work-from-home policies until the end of next year. Facebook said it will allow employees to do so permanently.
But the options put forth by Cushman & Wakefield, governments and surveillance companies tell a uniform message: Working from home is only a part-time crutch, not a full-time solution.
"I don't see the office going away," Cardone said. "I don't see everybody just going to work from home from now on."
When the spread of the virus slows down and stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, Cardone said, a gradual re-entry into the office would be the ideal option, with some employees working from home so others at the office can remain physically distanced.
Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University who published a study on the benefits of telecommuting in 2015, said in an interview that many companies will have employees work from home half-time, post COVID-19.
"The most common model is: in the office Monday, Wednesday, Friday and then work from home Tuesday, Thursday," he said. "If it were me, what I would do is say, 'When the lockdown ends, it's your choice.'"
In a recent study conducted by Cushman & Wakefield, which analyzed more than 40,000 responses related to workplace experience during the pandemic, results showed that 73% of participants want to have that flexibility.
Productivity reached an all-time high through remote work, but social bonding and connection between employees suffered the most, with little more than half of respondents saying they feel connected to their colleagues.
And not everyone, particularly younger workers, enjoy the work-at-home experience.
"Young people or people newly into the workforce are not as experienced or necessarily skilled in the specializations of that organization," Cardone said. "So much of their learning is done through their neighbors in the office — now they're at home and they no longer have access to those people so conveniently."
Younger people also struggled the most to adapt to the new at-home work environment, the report stated, since they often live in shared spaces with housemates or their parents.
"The workplace will no longer be a single location, but an ecosystem of a variety of locations and experiences to support flexibility, functionality and employee well-being," Brett White, executive chairman and CEO of Cushman & Wakefield, said in a press release.
Naturally, there will be a decrease in commuters, but Bloom suggested that it's far from the death knell for the office building. It's the exact opposite, he said, especially for suburban cities such as Palo Alto.
As companies decide to keep employees at home half-time, Bloom believes this could usher the demand for offices outside of highly congested cities, such as downtown San Francisco, and into two- to three-story suburban office spaces near employees' homes.
"This could potentially be a boom for Palo Alto office real estate," Bloom said.
Beyond the physical workspace, Cardone said that the pandemic has forced companies to re-examine how they interact with employees overall. Workers' concern for health and safety is at an all-time high, so companies will need to prove to their employees that it's safe to come back to work.
"It's forcing organizations to communicate with its workforce in a different way and that's a fantastic thing," Cardone said. "We have a much higher demand for executive communication to inspire confidence to encourage us to go back — those organizations who dropped the ball on communications in the coming months, I think will actually fail."
For a detailed look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the local economy, employment, education and more, see "Life in Quarantine: How the COVID-19 pandemic has changed Silicon Valley," a series of interactive by-the-number graphics.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.