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A blueprint for redesigning the office in the pandemic era

For many of us, the old reality of trekking to work at an office every day has begun to feel like a distant memory. Months of working from home—necessary to stem the spread of the coronavirus—have forced us into new routines. And the idea of going back to our desks feels a little scary—literally. In a recent poll by consulting firm Korn Ferry, 50{ce8ce7cc98bffdc4302011057a79600ea02c464c5536f1477c12acdb8bd79c00} of respondents said they were afraid to return to their offices. As more companies experiment with reopening, there is mounting pressure to convey a sense of safety to employees. That is spurring a reimagining of the workplace in the pandemic era. “Right now, to start to bring people back to the office, it’s all about reorienting circulation and reorganizing space,” CEO Andrew Cogan of office and home design firm Knoll recently told Fortune

The adjustment to this redesigned reality won’t be easy or automatic for employees, says Bill Knightly, the chief executive of global occupier services at commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. Coming back after months away is strange enough, and now workers will need to learn a whole new set of procedures. “We’re asking them to comply with brand new protocols that are unfamiliar in a scenario or setting where they’ve been restricted in terms of their movement,” says Knightly, who runs Cushman’s business managing real estate for big corporate clients. “So that’s extremely challenging to try to encourage and nudge and get compliance with those behaviors.”

To better understand what the new office experience might be like, we studied the latest guidelines from Cushman & Wakefield and other commercial real estate firms such as CBRE Group. What’s out: crowded open-office work areas and collaboration spaces, touching door handles, and communal coffee machines. (Getting your caffeine fix pre-commute will be key.) What may be in: density monitoring, to limit the number of employees in the office on a given day; going to meetings from your desk via videoconference; heavy-duty air filters; and interior design elements, such as new carpeting, that help reinforce social distancing.

Here’s a detailed blueprint for redesigning office spaces in the pandemic era:

To control and monitor access, only one entrance point should be used. A new guest check-in system permits touchless registration using a cell phone. Body temperature is scanned to filter potential cases of illness. Hand sanitizer and PPE are provided to guests. Receptionists are protected by a glass partition.

Waiting area
Chairs are removed to discourage lingering.

Density monitoring
Sensors are used to track how many people are using common spaces. Dashboards at entries display attendance. Workers may use an online reservation system to see how many people will be in each day.

Promote safe workplace practices.

Elevator attendants manage flow and prevent overcrowding of carriages. Floor stickers establish distancing zones and describe where to stand.
There should be ongoing cleaning of high-touch surfaces such as buttons.

Shipping areas should be set apart from the rest of the company. Mailroom workers will sanitize all items arriving in the workplace, from packages to food deliveries. Sterilizing booths may be equipped with devices that use ultra­violet light to kill viruses.

Nonessential doors need to be removed or affixed in open positions. Provide disinfectant wipes at entry points where doors remain.

Light switches
Remain always on or movement detectors are used.

Floor mats
Are sanitized frequently

Bicycle racks
Additional bike racks are added to accommodate commuters who choose to avoid public transportation.

Delivery clerks
Deliver sanitized mail as well as pre-requested office supplies.

Personal effects
Individual storage for clothes is provided. Nonessential items should not be stored at desks.

Traffic control
Increments of acceptable social distance should be clearly marked on floors where lines could form. Add signs showing foot-traffic direction.

Isolation room
A specific enclosed room should be designated to isolate any person who experiences symptoms of an illness. A “quarantine marshal” will coordinate the response and notify medical professionals.

Block captains
Certain employees (organized by floor or company) will have responsibility for ensuring that everyone in the building is respecting precautions and protocols. They will also facilitate and maintain communication with building management.

Air filters
Heavy-duty HVAC filters can help reduce airborne contaminants, including viruses.

PPE stocks
Offices should obtain, store, and manage supplies of all required personal protective equipment (PPE). And keeping a careful inventory of cleaning materials is critical to ensure that supplies match building occupancy.

Panels are added between desks. Workers receive disposable wipes to clean their own work surface as well as disposable place mats. No-touch trash cans as well as PPE-specific trash cans are provided. Fabric-upholstered chairs should be replaced with easily cleaned plastic chairs. There’s no borrowing of phones or any desk equipment. Use of mobile phones is encouraged.

Workers should sit only at every other desk. The alternate desks should be off-limits or removed altogether.

Smaller rooms
Private offices and small spaces are for single-occupant use only. Groups are prohibited.

Meeting rooms
Large gatherings are off-limits, so meeting rooms can be converted to host workstations and desaturate existing open spaces. Use of virtual collaboration tools such as videoconferencing is encouraged, even for those physically present in the office.

Minimal contact
The fewer the shared objects that can be touched, the better. Whiteboard pens are removed, as well as remote controls. Printers are eliminated.

Heavy-usage areas
Determine which areas require thorough and more frequent cleaning owing to heavy usage, such as office gyms, conference rooms, and restrooms. If fitness facilities are reopened, the equipment should be rearranged to achieve social distancing; wearing masks is required.

Only prepackaged foods should be offered. Plexiglas dividers separate service providers and diners. Queuing areas need clear signage, and self-service should be avoided. Coffeepots are removed. Furniture is rearranged to promote social distancing.

A version of this article appears in the August/September 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “Reimagining the office for the pandemic era.”

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