The Post Covid Workplace (part 2)
CDC Guidelines and Reduced Restrictions
We are now slowly beginning our return to the workplace for “non-essential” businesses. While some states have outlined a more aggressive resumption of activities that were restricted in the early days of the pandemic, other states have taken a slower and more measured approach. Many companies (and the design firms they work with) have been hoping for clearer guidance on how to address their needs for a safer workplace for their employees and customers, whether they are an essential businesses and have been at their place of work all along, or they are a company that is resuming work or looking to do so in the near future.
In anticipation of what those guidelines would look like, many companies needed to act to create immediate solutions. The design community speculated that open office spaces (and other open plan spaces) would be drastically altered, all the while maintaining that we would not return to cubicles. The hospitality community pondered the viability of restaurants at reduced occupant capacity, hotels without breakfast areas or gyms, and events where some participants would join “remotely”.
Many of those concerns and questions remain unresolved, but what we do have now are CDC guidelines to outline to business owners, designers and operators what they will need to consider in planning for safe occupancy while the pandemic continues. The CDC addressed many expected areas such as social distancing, ventilation, cleaning, etc., but in doing so raised some new questions. If we are to maintain 6 feet of distance between people, how do we use elevators? If we can’t open windows (or are in a climate that is not conducive to it), will we be required to upgrade ventilation systems? They recommend reduced use of public transit and possibly reimbursing employees using other ways to get to work like single-occupancy rides if they can’t drive in to work themselves, which has left many urban-based employers and employees scratching their heads.
While the guidelines leave much for state and municipal health departments to decide on actual requirements, there are some useful suggestions like “Install transparent shields or other physical barriers where possible to separate employees and visitors where social distancing is not an option”. Beyond some of these more basic suggestions, it will be tough for small and medium-sized businesses to act (budget for and spend) on some of the broader ideas. Larger businesses that have flexibility in their work-from-home capacity have been continuing to do so where they can. Maybe unsurprisingly, tech companies have grabbed headlines by announcing a more permanent shift to remote working for many of their employees.
All of these things will have a dramatic effect on how we use our real estate and even how much of it is needed when it comes to traditional offices. We may look back on this period in a few years (hopefully with a vaccine and more effective treatments for the virus available), and think this was a knee-jerk set of reactions and that long-term, workplaces will look much like they did in 2019. It seems we could just as easily arrive at a place where the digital trends that allow for remote working, shopping and other activities were seen as just being accelerated by the pandemic and that some of shifts we are taking part in now were inevitable with or without our current crisis. Only time will tell.