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Will the new virtual world of working spell the end of the office?

It is 10 a.m. and you are about to start your workday at the office. You enter the lobby and follow a one-way system that makes sure you maintain 6 feet of distance between yourself and fellow workers. You might have your temperature checked before you can go any further. You enter the elevator alone at a designated time that you prebooked through an app on your phone.

Your office is only half as full as it was in pre-COVID-19 times. A small number of employees, sitting at workstations at least 6 feet apart, have already been working a shift that started a few hours earlier and will end a few hours before yours. The rest of your colleagues are telecommuting. You only work in the office two days a week. The rest of the time you work from home.

This scenario is what may play out for the majority of workers as the lockdown eases and employers start to welcome staff back to the office. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a myriad of new requirements at employers, who face decisions on how to bring staff back to the office while maintaining a safe work environment.

Social distancing means fewer people can be inside the office at the same time, as more square feet of space has to be maintained for each employee. Communal space, such as conference rooms and kitchens, will have to be carefully monitored to maintain physical distance, and extra cleaning will have to be undertaken.

COVID-19 has changed the way we work overnight; experts are already predicting that the changes it has required — employees working in shifts, shortened workdays and telecommuting en masse — will have long-lasting impact on office design and usher in a permanent flexible workday for many employees.

Employers should ask for feedback from staff when planning to bring employees back to the office, say experts. Erik Steffensen, principal at Portland business consultant Point B, says employers should not assume that every employee is in the same position to return to the office while the pandemic is active.

An employee may live with an immune-compromised person, for example, and not feel comfortable coming back to the office. Telecommuting will remain the best option for them.

Others may do better being in the office because their environment at home is not conducive to working — they may not have enough room or privacy to work productively, for example. The best way businesses can find out which employees are best suited to coming back to the office is to survey them, says Steffensen.

“We try to emphasize a sense of equity,” he says. “Provide employees with options to put their minds at rest so that they can go back to being productive. They begin to feel the organization is with them and not trying to make the situation worse. That fosters togetherness and trust in any company’s culture.”

Monitoring employees’ health is one way that staff may feel safer coming back to the office. But employers should be careful that this does not backfire by impinging on their employees’ privacy. It might be the best option to leave it to employees to monitor their own health and for the employer to trust workers not to come to the office if they feel unwell.

Health-monitoring technologies could become commonplace. The National Basketball Association, for example, is offering players a ring that tracks the wearer’s health and may even predict if they will develop symptoms.

Just the act of providing employees with the option of tracking their own health may be enough to make employees feel safe returning to the office.

“The more you as a company can help employees actively manage their health, the more they will feel better coming to work. And that is what you need to thrive as a business,” says Steffensen.

Investing in heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems that increase the percentage of outside air and filter it more regularly will be expected of office-building owners. Office-building managers may be expected to change heating and air-conditioning systems to make them more decentralized so that air is not recirculated from other offices.

Technology will also play a big part in the future with more touchless doors, windows and plumbing fixtures being integrated into building designs, says Dan Mehls, vice president and general manager of Mortenson, a construction and real estate development firm.

“More than ever, video-conferencing capabilities will be built into each workstation and conference room,” says Mehls.

Employers will also be expected to ramp up cleaning. Communal kitchens may become a thing of the past while the pandemic is active. Conference rooms will have to be cleaned several times a day.

“Cleaning out the trash and giving a desk a once-over is not enough,” says Steffensen. “If you have a conference meeting, the room should be cleaned afterward and then reserved in advance. The cleaning schedule has to become more rigorous.”

If a vaccine is found and the pandemic comes to an end — big ifs there — experts predict that the profound changes to our way of working that have taken root since the beginning of the lockdown in March will be everlasting.

Telecommuting — a trend that was already an accepted form of work for many office-based employees — will be the new normal for most workers. And it won’t be a token benefit that allows employees to work one day a week from home. It may well be a permanent work feature for many. Others may opt for working in the office two to three days a week and working from home the rest of the time.

This hybrid approach to office working — spending half the time working remotely and half the time in the office — is what Nathan Christensen, CEO of Portland human resources consulting firm Mammoth and ThinkHR (both companies recently merged), says will become the norm.

The firm surveyed its 200 employees to find out whether, in a post-COVID-19 world, they thought they would need to be in the office to be productive.

Roughly 20% said they would not need to come into the office at all because they were more productive at home. About 40% envisioned being in the office one to two days a week. Another 40% said they saw themselves coming into the office three to four days a week. No employees imagined going back to the office five days a week.

Some pundits have suggested companies may do away with the office completely and go 100% virtual. But experts say this is not suitable for many employees. Many will feel fed up of working from home permanently, locked into seemingly endless virtual meetings.

“Too many Zoom calls and just a lack of change in environment are having an effect on everyone’s mental health,” says Steffensen. Going 100% virtual “will reveal itself to be unhealthy for organizations,” he says.

Employers may also be worried about losing so-called creative productivity of employees. Employees have proven they can work productively at home. But the lack of interaction with their peers could be creating a void in their creative thinking.

“The communal energy of having the best thinkers and strategists in the same room, solving problems and working together, cannot be understated,” says Mehls.

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While the office is unlikely to go away entirely, the design and layout of offices of the future could be very different.
“Longer term, employers are trying to understand what is important to be in person in the office for,” says Christensen. “Employers have realized that things that seemed important to have an office for are not important anymore.”

The new thinking is that employers will decide it is important to have offices for group events and activities, such as strategic-planning meetings or celebrating accomplishments. This will impact office design, which will prioritize collaborative spaces for group gatherings over space for individual workstations.

“Commercial real estate will be used more intentionally for collaborative purposes,” says Christensen. “You will see more interesting designs about being intentionally productive when being together, such as incorporating electronic whiteboarding and live-interactive scenarios. You might have three people collaborating with six or seven working remote either locally or globally.”

Businesses will also likely downsize office space because fewer employees will be in the office at the same time.

Downsizing is unlikely during the pandemic because employers have to maintain social distancing. But longer term, in a post-COVID-19 world, the era of large, open-plan offices may be a thing of the past.

What does this mean for commercial real estate markets that have experienced a boom in office building? Portland is an example of a city that has experienced a surge in commercial real estate construction. In 2015 the city was the second tightest market for office space in the country. Since then many offices have been constructed, chiefly to meet demand from companies that moved from expensive office-rental markets such as San Francisco.

That building boom has led to a surplus of office space that existed before the coronavirus pandemic. “We were definitely building more capacity than we were absorbing,” says Tim Harrison, research manager at real estate advisor Jones Lang LaSalle.

New office leasing has dropped by 50% since the pandemic, says Harrison, as companies hold back on expanding or relocating. Businesses are also renewing leases for a shorter time — three years instead of four to five years — as they reassess how much office space they will need in the future.

Subleasing could also become more common as office tenants, particularly in the tech sector, pare back growth plans, says Harrison. Vacation-rental company Vacasa was a recent example of a tech company that is seeking to sublease part of its office space. The firm offered to sublet 37,000 square feet of a 75,000-square-foot building it occupies in Portland’s Pearl District.

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Growth of satellite offices and one- to two-story suburban offices may also be a byproduct of the pandemic. “If you think about having to take an elevator in a 40-story building, there could be increased demand for single-story office buildings out in the suburbs,” says Harrison.

With more employees working from home and trips to the office becoming less frequent, managers are justified in worrying about the erosion of workplace culture that is the cornerstone of corporate identity and business success.

Some put a positive spin on the impact of telecommuting on company culture. Christensen says the mass uptake in working from home accelerates positive attributes of company culture, such as transparency and collaboration.

“Working remotely has forced healthy conversations between employees and their managers,” says Christensen. “When managers can’t physically see their employees working, it creates healthy conversations about the expectations and contributions that are needed.”

Communication is one of the hardest parts of company culture to keep alive when employees work remotely. Chatting virtually with colleagues over platforms such as Zoom often removes the spontaneity of in-person discussions.

Steffensen recommends employers set up platforms for virtual chats that do not apply to job function. This will allow employees to converse with their coworkers in an informal way, helping to strengthen camaraderie.

The chats could be on shared common interests, such as skiing or mountain biking. It is especially important to do this across departments so employees can chat with colleagues who do not share a direct job function and can easily drop out of contact with each other in a remote-work setting.

Ultimately, the era of working traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workdays in the office is likely to be over for the majority of us. Most would agree the flexible workday, which could end or lessen rush-hour traffic and congestion, is a positive development and will free up time for us to balance our work and personal lives.

But while traditional work schedules may be over, the end of the office is unlikely as employers and employees discover they miss “that human connection and creativity that they get from coming into the office,” says Harrison.

Originally published on OregonBusiness.com.