BALTIMORE (AP) — Shared cubicles are out. Staggered shifts and touchless doors are in. A mix of remote and on-site work is inevitable.
Welcome back to the office.
As pandemic-shuttered businesses reopen in Maryland, workers and employers are preparing for workplaces designed to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
In Maryland, most office-based employers switched to a mandatory work-from-home policy during the pandemic if they could, some before the state’s stay-at-home order took effect March 30. Employees quickly adapted, attending virtual business meetings, coffee chats and financial consultations.
An executive order from Gov. Larry Hogan allowed most Marylanders to return to office jobs after June 5, the start of the state reopening’s second phase, though Hogan warned that remote work remains preferable.
Nationally, more than half of U.S. workplaces plan to reopen by July 15, while 45% haven’t determined when workers will return, a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management shows.
For one thing, landlords and tenants aren’t sure what to change about the office, and whether to invest in fixes for the short or long term. No vaccine is available yet for COVID-19 and the disease’s long-term patterns are unknown.
David Noel, president of MOI, an office interior furnishings provider, opened the company’s Baltimore headquarters this week after months of planning to protect the employees against health risks with signs and other measures designed to provide proper social distancing.
“It’s way too early to make permanent changes to the workplace,” said Jim Lighthizer, a principal and managing partner with Chesapeake Real Estate Group. “By and large, people are keeping what they have and using a common-sense approach while they wait and see.”
It, for sure, won’t be business as usual. Migrating some or all employees back to work will likely mean staggering shifts on-site, increasing telework, closing or restricting common areas, and spreading employees out at individual, rather than shared, desks.
That’s largely the approach being taken by Baltimore-based MOI. The commercial interiors and furnishings supplier reopened its 60-person Locust Point office June 29 for the first time since mid-March. The firm had been planning the transition for weeks, deciding to hold off on costly permanent changes in favor of encouraging behavioral changes and limiting the number of employees.
For now, half can come to work Mondays and Tuesdays, with the rest in on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The office closes on Fridays for a deep clean.
Returning workers must wear face masks. Green floor arrows send people on a one-way loop around the office. Signs remind workers to wipe down areas after use. “If you touch it, clean it,” one reminder says.
Maximum capacity numbers are posted outside conference rooms and on common space tables. Workers have been given stylus pens to use on touch screens and can open restroom doors with a foot pedal. The reduced seating that remains in the communal kitchen and conference room is spread out.
The workforce shifted seamlessly to telework, thanks to company laptops already in use. But during the reopening’s first week, just a handful of employees have chosen to return, MOI President David Noel said.
“That’s what I expected,” Noel said. “There were a few of us antsy to get in, then a few that have no child care or they’re nervous. Physically, I’m convinced we will be spread out and fine. But psychologically, how do you get people to really feel safe going out?”
Emilee Gawrych, who works in Columbia for software developer Vectorworks, is waiting for an upcoming virtual return-to-work orientation to learn more about new protocols such as one-way hallways and newly shuttered eating areas. The office where she works in channel marketing will reopen July 6, limited to 42 people at first.
But even a phased reopening could have drawbacks, Gawrych said.
She’d be sorry to give up Zoom trivia sessions and coffee chats that helped bring workers in different cities together. And she’s concerned that instead of adhering to rules allowing half the workforce in at a time, “some people will go to the office three or four days a week, potentially exposing everyone.”
It should come as no surprise that work-related anxiety has been on the upswing, said Cathleen Swody, an industrial and organizational psychologist and partner at Thrive Leadership in Hartford, Connecticut. Stay-at-home orders forced many to struggle to manage work, parenting and home schooling. Some are eager to return to offices where they may feel less distracted and less isolated, she said.
“People can be eager to go, but a transition back to the office is not a transition back to normal,” Swody said. “It’s not where we left it in March.”
Experts expect the virus to accelerate the already growing trend toward telework. Some employers, including Google and Facebook, have extended remote work through the rest of the year.
Two-thirds of employers surveyed by SHRM indicated plans to adopt broader work-from-home policies. Another survey, by consumer insight firm Piplsay, found that two-thirds of Americans are comfortable with a permanent work from home culture, saying it will save time and money, and enable a more comfortable work-life balance.
No one expects offices to be abandoned altogether. But it’s too soon to tell how health-related changes, not to mention financial pain caused by COVID-19 closures, could affect demand for space. Tenants with more remote workers might need less space, but then again they might need more space to meet 6-foot social distancing rules.
“The reality is that most workers want to come back to the office in some form, whether it’s a couple days at home or a few days in the office once in a while,” said Gail E. Chrzan, a senior vice president with Blue and Obrecht Realty. “People are looking for collaboration.”
Employers planning to reopen offices should first assess their workplace’s risk in spreading COVID-19, then work to lower that risk, according to a blueprint for reopening or expanding offices published last month by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“There’s always going to be a chance while this disease is circulating in the community that cases will pop up connected to a business, but they can do everything in their power to lower that risk,” said Lucia Mullen, a study author and analyst with the center.
The Hopkins study recommends doing more business online to limit interactions between employees, customers and clients, limiting who can visit facilities and alternating shifts so the same group of people are exposed only to one another.
Many companies put real estate decisions on hold during the pandemic.
“Some of the groups that were active in the market before COVID are buying a little time right now,” said Brent Mangum, a vice president of office leasing for Owings Mills-based developer David S. Brown Enterprises. “They’re not as eager to make a decision.”
Mangum believes recent trends toward high-density floor plans and shared workspaces “may start to reverse as companies recognize shoehorning eight to 10 people per 1,000 square feet of office space in the name of collaboration is probably the antithesis of ‘healthy distancing,’” he said.
The health crisis prompted some changes to the redevelopment of Lakeside Center, an 85,000-square-foot office and retail center under construction in Columbia. Owner Holland Properties now plans touchless controls allowing occupants to ride elevators and open doors with the wave of a hand. Builders also upgraded to a medical-grade air system of the type used in hospitals.
“The pandemic has made us rethink the type of office space that users will want to occupy,” said Joe Holland, president of Holland Construction, which is rebuilding the center that was damaged in a gas explosion last August and starting to seek office tenants.
Besides automatic doors at exterior entrances, “we’ve taken it a step further to interior doors, elevators, bathrooms and spaces like that,” Holland said. “We are anticipating that the layout will change slightly as a result of” COVID, with more physical separation of workers and a shift away from dense collaborative space.
Office design in the age of COVID-19 should be approached in much the same way as it is now, if done right — based on a user’s needs, values and culture, said Kelly Ennis, founder and managing principal of the Verve Partnership, a Baltimore architecture firm.
That never should mean cramming people into small cubicles in the name of efficiency, she said.
“People can’t function in rows and rows of cubes,” Ennis said. “What you are going to see is spaces that are a little bit more spaced out and programmed to the user.”
Keeping workers safe does not necessarily mean going the way of the supermarket, she said. In an office space, a mishmash of signs, floor markers and plexiglass shields would tend either to be ignored, offer a false sense of security or be anxiety-provoking and counterproductive.
“The primary thing coming out of this is people have to feel safe, and they have to feel grounded and they have to have a sense of structure,” Ennis said. “Design plays a huge part in all those things.”
Noel, the MOI president, said he doubts office use will resemble pre-pandemic times even after a vaccine is available. He sees the office as the centerpiece of a more flexible way of working. He expects people will gradually return in some form, both to his own office and those the company supplies.
“I don’t think you can build culture in an organization without a physical connection in the office,” he said. “In the long run … the connection of people is still important, and so the design of space will shift so offices are more designed for people to come and collaborate and less designed to come in and spend the day and work their eight hours.”
People, Noel said, want to interact with other people. “And that’s hard to do from home.”