The New Office: How to Get People Back to Work, Safely

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Sophia Lopez, a freelancer, Steve Bullock, member success manager at American Underground, and Eddie Hanline, founder of Client Forest, work 6 feet apart at the common tables in the Bullpen at American Underground @Main. Photo by Amber Robinson

Goodbye, water cooler chat. See ya, midday conference room meetings. Really, forget any preconceived notions you had of what the word “office” means. The COVID-19 pandemic – for better or for worse – forced businesses to adjust their operations, including, well, where they do them. Or if they need a physical space to do them at all.

According to a Gallup poll conducted in April, 62% of employed Americans said they’ve worked from home since the onset of the coronavirus. That’s double the rate from as recently as mid-March, and people are discovering en masse how much they enjoy their home “offices.” An IBM study from May found that more than 75% of those surveyed indicated they would like to continue working remotely, at least occasionally.

“One thing that has been established,” said John Warasila of Alliance Architecture, a firm that specializes in designing collaborative office spaces, “is you can work from home, and you can work from home pretty effectively.”

Virtual meeting places like Zoom have played a key role in that transition, allowing companies to simulate conference room settings from their employees’ living rooms. It’s not a perfect swap, but by and large, businesses are adjusting. Zoom said in April that it hosts more than 300 million daily meeting participants.

So, what happens when employees are gradually allowed to return to their workspaces? Do they? The truth is, no one knows yet. There are still clear benefits, like ease of communication and the appeal of state-of-the-art facilities, but now there will be questions, too. Are shared physical spaces, especially those meant to bring people together, safe from a health standpoint? And are they worth the cost, both in terms of leases and upkeep? Those answers will vary from place to place, but the point remains: An “office” may never look the same again.

Alliance Architecture – a business designed to construct physical spaces – has found it actually doesn’t need one of its own. Over the past four months, its staff has been working remotely. And every month, when Principal Architect Vandana Dake sends out a survey asking if anyone would want to come back, or feel comfortable doing so, the answer is no.

Safety and liability are two crucial parts of the equation, but Dake and her husband, Warasila, have found the home office to be successful. But then that begs the question from a business perspective: “Why do you want to come back?” Dake said. “Why do you want to have an office space? It’s not just, ‘What is the new office space?’ We do not know right now. Everybody’s guessing. Everybody has some solutions, but I don’t think it’s permanent.”

To me, what that is a metaphor for is flexible workplaces and not just places, but strategies for how people are going to work,” Warasila added. “My office could have people who are in Chicago, Los Angeles [and] Hong Kong who are a part of ‘the office,’ but they don’t really ever have to come to the office. It opens the door to having a much different structure for what a company is.”

And Dake is not only sending surveys to her team; she’s also sent out polls to clients as well, many of whom are corporate accounts. Of those who responded, 100% don’t see themselves returning to the office any time soon. However, they could see themselves working at a 20% capacity.

Their team hasn’t shut down the idea of a physical office completely. They’re just trying to weave a broader perspective. Warasila noted that employees’ health safety and clusters of people are now going to be important elements to consider when designing a space. And short-term solutions, or “multiple prescriptions,” as he calls them, of desks spaced 6 feet apart with circles embedded into the carpet to remind employees to social distance, Plexiglas guards on workstations or wearing masks – are not long-term solutions.

“Think about every time we see those prescriptions,” Warasila said. “Why would anybody want to come back to that?”

While Warasila, Dake and their team are thinking about permanent post-pandemic office solutions, Cathy Hofknecht and her staff at Neu Concepts, a design firm with experience in cabinet-making and furniture production, are jumping to build quick fixes. Among the low-cost, high-impact measures are “sneeze guards” – plastic glass barriers – as well as moveable walls and directional signage.

Establishing firmer boundaries and improving the flow of human traffic, she hopes, will provide employees with a stronger sense of safety – and therefore ease their gradual transition back into the office.

“If somebody comes in and they see those physical indicators, it’s that clue that says, ‘This company is really taking all of this very seriously,’” Hofknecht said. “Maybe I am being a little too conservative [by taking extra precautions], but by being conservative, I’m certainly not hurting anyone. And I’m potentially helping somebody, and things like wearing a mask or making sure I try to stand 6 feet apart make a difference.”

Hofknecht mentioned 9/11 and how the terrorist attacks changed the way airports operate and what security looks like today. She believes a similar mindset will apply to offices, which will try at any cost to avoid widespread sickness. That might dampen the appeal of open, collaborative office spaces, but not bring about the end of offices all together.

“I personally don’t believe that people are going to say, ‘Oh, I’m going to close my office completely, and everybody’s going to work from home,’” Hofknecht said. “There may be a balance between some work from home and some in the office, but a lot of people enjoy the social interaction of being in an office – even the opportunity to be there on occasion has some benefits. People begin to get stir-crazy.”

For Neu Concepts specifically, working from home is near impossible given their line of work. They need a facility with mass manufacturing equipment in order to build custom barriers and signage, so some of their employees returned to the office in May.

Striking that balance has been key for all businesses similarly deemed essential during the pandemic. American Underground, which is home to 250 startups, never closed its offices in March. And there’s been a notable uptick in people coming back in June, said Adam Klein, chief strategist at AU.

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Sanitizing. Wearing a mask. Maintaining 6 feet of distance. Sophia Lopez and Steve Bullock show what a typical day at American Underground’s Main Street office currently entails. Photo by Amber Robinson

Companies like AU need the protective equipment that Neu Concepts and similar businesses provide, or else they wouldn’t be able to follow state or CDC health guidelines. And while 95% of the companies at AU work in private offices, they still share common hallways and kitchen areas. Establishing clear protocols like mask wearing and social distancing, in addition to physical redesigns, was necessary to communicate to members immediately.

“I would say on a given day, somewhere between 30 and maybe 40 startups are in the space,” Klein said, “and that could be as simple as one person. It might just be the CEO of that company. In other cases, some teams are growing, and they’re growing quickly. And so they’ve got more people in this space.”

Some businesses simply couldn’t exist in a virtual-only world, Klein said. Despite offering virtual memberships, certain businesses needed four walls to work within – for production purposes, but for personal ones, too.

“There’s going to always be a demand for physical space,” Klein said. “Physical space and being in close proximity is always going to have value. Humans are social creatures at the most basic level, and I don’t think you’ll see a complete virtual move really ever. What’s more likely is some kind of hybrid scenario where people have an office and some portion of their team comes in on a pretty regular basis, while others potentially work remotely.”

Because of the constantly changing nature of the coronavirus and subsequent outbreaks, AU adjusts plans on a month-to-month basis. At the end of June, the company decided to extend its no-guest policy through the end of July. As the number of positive cases is still on the rise in North Carolina (as of press time), Klein’s team refuses to take unnecessary risks. But he’s still hopeful for spaces like AU over the next year or two, for two major reasons: belief in the emerging prevalence of hybrid business models and AU’s increasing flexibility with office leases.

One such business that plans to engage in some sort of hybrid model is Knox St. Studios. The resource hub, which opened in May 2019, was originally designed for one-on-one, in-person interaction, primarily for African American youth interested in STEM and coding. But at the onset of COVID-19, it quickly transitioned to operating wholly online.

“Until there is a cure – a vaccine for COVID-19 – and we have the proper health measures in place, we won’t open back up,” founder Talib Graves-Manns said. “That’s irresponsible.”

Shifting to online-only naturally came at the expense of Knox St. Studios’ bottom line. For a business whose revenue stream depended in part on renting out physical space, the inability to do so was always going to be difficult. Graves-Manns is excited for the day he can safely reopen and reengage with his clients in person.

But the temporary solution he found – shifting to a virtual only model – isn’t something he’ll immediately move away from. That programming has been so successful he can now incorporate it, to some extent, into the business’ long-term revenue plan. How much of it he integrates is still to be determined, and really can’t be until the pandemic ends, but it’s a major positive to come out of a tricky situation.

“Turning off the revenue model of having space rental causes a budgetary gap,” Graves-Manns said. “The way to fill that budgetary gap is for us to, say, lean into other parts of our business model – of virtual learning – to compensate for that gap.”

There is no one, clear-cut catchall for what the “new office” will look like.

As “normal” life slowly returns – whenever that may be – there will be those who eagerly head back to their conventional spaces. Some, like Neu Concepts, have to in order to do their business. But there will be those who take adjustments made during the pandemic and include them in how they operate moving forward. That might be a hybrid system, like what Knox St. Studios has planned. For others, it’s more wholeheartedly embracing the work-from-home trend many Americans have been practicing since March.

“There’s a huge opportunity here,” Warasila said. “We’ve [been] asked pretty directly: ‘Why do I need an office?’ Our thinking around that has started to shift to, ‘Maybe that’s not exactly the right question.’ Maybe the question is: ‘What kind of office do I need?’”

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Hannah Lee

Hannah Lee is the assistant editor at Durham Magazine. Born and raised in Winston-Salem, she attended UNC-Chapel Hill and double majored in broadcast journalism and German.
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