The Pandemic May Mean the End of the Open-Floor Office - The New York Times

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As companies are considering repatriating workers to their desks, many people are considering changes in modern workplace culture and pitfalls.

San Francisco—Modern corporate offices are known for open collaborative work spaces, in-room coffee bars, and standing desks that can accommodate two giant computer monitors.

Soon, there may be a new essential privilege: Sneezing Guardian.

This plexiglass barrier that can be installed on a table is one of many ideas that employers consider because they plan to return to the workplace after the coronavirus lockdown. Post-pandemic transformations may include hand sanitizers built into the table, which are placed at a 90-degree angle or surrounded by translucent plastic partitions; air filters keep the air down instead of pushing up; outdoor party spaces can be used Cooperate without the spread of the virus; and actually open the windows to make the air flow more smoothly.

From small startups to large Wall Street companies, the entire corporate world is discussing how to reconfigure the American workplace. Design and furniture companies hired to make a makeover say that the virus may even bias the workplace toward a concept they have been away from since the time of the madman: privacy.

The question is whether any changes being considered will actually lead to a safer workplace.

"We are not infectious disease experts, we are just furniture people." said Tracy D. Wymer, vice president of Knoll's workplace. Knoll is a company that produces office furniture and is favored by anxious customers, including some of the country's largest companies, to propose ways to reduce health risks in the workplace.

Actual disease experts say that a virus-free office environment is nothing short of dreams. Dr. Rajneesh Behal, chief quality officer of One Medical, an internal medicine physician, said: "The core message is, don't expect the risk to decrease. This is a core message. It is the threshold for the company to reopen. Return to zero."

Dr. Lisa Winston, an epidemiologist at the University of San Francisco’s Zuckerberg Hospital, said that much of the known information about the workplace and the spread of disease comes from research on the spread of influenza in the workplace, which is consistent with The new coronavirus has some similarities. California, San Francisco. She said: "We know that the flu will spread to the workplace in healthy adults."

Various research papers from all over the world have found that about 16% of influenza transmission occurs in the office.

Other studies have shown that one of the best ways to reduce workplace transmission is to provide paid sick leave to encourage sick employees to stay home.

Dr. Winston said that another basic step to reduce risk is to "reduce the number of people in the space."

This concept runs counter to the zeitgeist of the workplace of the past two decades. The use of open floor plans can be traced back to the first Internet bubble in the late 1990s. It is considered essential for collaboration and creativity, but, of course, it also involves squeezing more people into expensive office space, and people are now aware that this situation can cause annoying petri conditions. .

Mr. Wymer of Knoll, a furniture design company, said that his goal has changed from an unrealistic office virus-free to a transformation of the office to make workers feel safer.

He said: "We can't ask employees to go back to the same office." "The company feels that we must address the fundamental fear."

For now, this may mean that there is no longer a need for shared desks (a concept called "hotel" in the business world), elbow-to-elbow seats or cafes where people gather together and use fruit water or hazelnut latte Chat on an item. This may mean using more materials that are not friendly to bacteria such as copper, and reconfiguring the ventilation system to make air flow down from the ceiling instead of up from the floor, which is considered safer.

Vancouver-based Mobify has established online storefronts for major retailers such as Under Armour and Lancôme. It has 40 employees and they share space with other startups. It is the epitome of the workplace in the 21st century, with continuous side-by-side desks, a space without partitions and an open space that can accommodate 100 people. It can accommodate all people for gatherings, playing table tennis and swimming pools.

Now, the company’s CEO Igor Faletksi said: “It’s no longer fun, it’s safety.”

"Huge buffet?" he said. "Forget it now."

Mr. Faletksi is considering allowing more employees to work from home and even moving the headquarters to a new building with better air circulation.

He said: "People want safe cooperation."

Some companies have begun to mention a return to one of the most mocked office design concepts in history: cubicles. There is also the transparent cousin of the compartment, the sneeze guard.

Obex PE, a California company, sends emails to potential customers through a "potential cough and sneeze protection screen." The email said: "There are many options to meet your style and needs, and add: Reduce interpersonal contact. Practice social distancing."

These guards already have homes in banks and grocery stores, but they are giving new impetus to company office space.

The 12-page PowerPoint report "Covid 19 and the future of furniture" written by CBRE, one of the world's largest commercial real estate companies, recommends "adding high laminate gallery panels to workstations or workbenches" .

Dr. Susan Huang, director of epidemiology and infection preventive medicine at the University of California, Irvine, has long used a tall plastic barrier in an office that is located on a desk, and the office is run by one of the top infectious disease experts in the United States. Dr. Huang said that these barriers are “not designed for the coronavirus,” but to reduce noise while maintaining a sense of collaboration. Now, these barriers may have the added benefit of creating certain biological isolations.

But Dr. Huang said that safety in the workplace requires more than just plastic protective covers. In fact, her laboratory reopened last week, and the first thing she had to do was hold a meeting to explain the new health regulations. At a meeting in the conference room, Dr. Huang gave each employee a bottle of hand sanitizer and a mask. She said: "I have to tell them,'You have to wear a mask all day, and tell them the right thing to do and they must do it."

She remembered saying at that meeting: "Also, don't touch the mask without first using hand sanitizer."

For smaller companies, the changes may be milder, but the burden of the problem is just as serious. Howard Cao, CEO of San Francisco start-up incubator Form & Fiction, said that he has been considering replacing the touchpad on the front door of his office, and seven of his employees shared the touchpad with employees of other start-ups. UPS. Mr. Cao said: "We may have to reconfigure it to something via Bluetooth or a smart key."

Inside the office, he hopes to create physical spaces or barriers between employees sitting at long tables. He said: "It may be as simple as a mini-divider between people."

Like a cubicle?

Yes, he admits, although it is not a good word for him. He said: "I have always been very disgusted."

The proposed office changes are more aesthetic than substantial in appearance, especially for the sneezing guard.

Ron Wiener, CEO of Seattle company iMovR, said: "I call it a social evacuation theater, just like the TSA security theater after 9/11." Defense.

Finally, the solution for many employers may not be to spend a lot of money to equip their new office space, but to simply let many employees continue to work from home in order to achieve two goals: maintaining personal safety and saving money.

This is the focus of the story about office renovations after the pandemic. In the name of security, people may also struggle to find money for a long time. In this case, the targets can come together like hand gloves.

Susan Stick, Evernote's general counsel, said that the move to the home office was indeed "well done." Evernote is a manufacturer of digital note-taking programs with 282 employees. "You can't put that elf back in the bottle."

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