Back in the BC era — before COVID-19 — employees at Greg Matusky’s public relations firm enjoyed a free breakfast buffet, a full gym equipped with Peloton bikes, weekly happy hours, on-site sessions with a massage therapist, and free parking. But when he polled his staff last week to see whether they missed coming into the company’s Ardmore office, the answer was a resounding no. In a company-wide questionnaire, 75% said they hoped to keep working at home even after the coronavirus lockdown is lifted.

“I don’t see them ever coming back on a daily basis,” said Matusky, whose company, Gregory FCA, works with clients such as the Eagles and AccuWeather.

He’s not unhappy about that. Creativity and productivity have improved since everyone began hunkering down in their homes. If Matusky were to shrink the size of his office in Ardmore’s business district, he could probably slash his $384,000 annual rent bill in half.

Matusky isn’t ready to take that step — not yet. But he will be balancing the decision against the daunting and costly measures needed to retrofit his three-story office building to make it safe for his 76 employees. That is, assuming it’s possible to make any company office safe.

Across the country, corporate managers are weighing an identical set of variables. Their decisions have the potential to reshape the downtown office district as we know it, depopulating gleaming trophy towers and further depleting the tax revenues of American cities. Big corporate offices won’t cease to exist, but they could be transformed into something more like conference centers, where people gather occasionally for company meetings, training, or special projects.

One reason that office life is likely to undergo such a radical reinvention is that many employees seem to like their new arrangement. When America’s white-collar workers were abruptly sent home two months ago, few could have imagined that the transition to working remotely would be so seamless. Most companies assumed their employees would eventually reassemble in their cubicles, scour the mold from their coffee cups, and resume their usual office rituals — minus the communally shared snacks.

Yet, somehow work has gotten done from afar, even by stressed-out parents who’ve had to toggle between demanding bosses and needy children. As weeks have turned into months, office workers have settled into new routines. They’ve carved out work spaces in spare bedrooms and dens, purchased scanners and printers, and mastered the etiquette of virtual meetings. Many have also discovered the pleasures of midday walks and home-cooked dinners, not to mention the extra hour gained by not having to commute.

“I can’t imagine going back to the office every day. And my dog is going to have a nervous breakdown when I do,” said Eileen Hurley, a criminal defense lawyer who works in Center City, referring to Donut, her slightly overweight pug.

Even in those professions where daily collaboration is necessary — like architecture and newspapers — cloud-based software has allowed them to keep going. “It’s amazing that we’re able to design buildings this way,” architect Brian Phillips, a principal at ISA in Philadelphia, told me. In normal times, his team would be tacking drawings onto a wall, holding stand-up meetings to critique the design, then returning to their computers to produce a revised version of the building. Now they’re getting the same results with Slack, Go-To-Meeting, and other fast-paced messaging programs.

Counter that success with the extreme measures required to allow people to work together in an open-plan office.

Offices are by nature giant Petri dishes for germs. While nowhere as bad as meat-packing plants, where cutters work shoulder-to-shoulder, "any environment that is enclosed, with poor air circulation and a high density of people, spells trouble,” Erin Bromage, a professor of biology and immunology at the University of Massachusetts, wrote last week in a widely read blog post. To make those germ-y spaces reasonably safe, companies will have to bring in specialized crews to disinfect at least once daily, possibly more, said Joseph Gyourko, a Wharton School economist. That’s a big expense.

A masked janitor cleans the lobby of 1700 Market in Philadelphia, where a sign offers workers advice for avoiding the coronavirus.
Inga Saffron
A masked janitor cleans the lobby of 1700 Market in Philadelphia, where a sign offers workers advice for avoiding the coronavirus.
Workers at the new NBC10 newsroom in the Comcast Technology Center in Center City sit close together at placemat-size work spaces.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Workers at the new NBC10 newsroom in the Comcast Technology Center in Center City sit close together at placemat-size work spaces.

But first, companies will have to figure out how to resettle returning workers. The need for social distancing means that employees can no longer be packed at tiny, place-mat-size desks. “Hoteling” — the practice of sharing desks — “is dead,” said Lauren Gilchrist, director of research in Philadelphia for JLL, a commercial real estate broker. “I wouldn’t be comfortable going into a hoteling station and wiping it down every day.”

Even in offices where employees toil in the relative luxury of their own cubicles, the overall population will still have to be de-densified, according to Philadelphia architect John B. Campbell of FCA, who designs corporate interiors. Seven years ago, when companies first started to embrace collaborative workspaces, Campbell’s firm helped create GSK’s cubicle-free offices at the Navy Yard. People were encouraged to sit wherever they liked. Now, he believes, “we may go back to the old-fashioned desk.”

Just not on the same day. For many companies, the only way to limit dangerous encounters will be staggered work shifts or alternate work days. “Instead of opting out of working in the office, we’ll opt in,” Campbell predicts. “People who want to come in will have to sign up for specific days and hours. When the number hits 50% of capacity, no one else can come in.” The new desks that Campbell envisions might be set on wheels, so people can move them apart. They’ll definitely have sneeze guards, or high partitions, to separate workers.

John B. Campbell's firm, FCA, designed GSK's Navy Yard headquarters to encourage collaboration. Most employees don't have assigned desks.
AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
John B. Campbell's firm, FCA, designed GSK's Navy Yard headquarters to encourage collaboration. Most employees don't have assigned desks.

We’re probably getting ahead of ourselves by talking about rearranging the office furniture. The real challenge to reopening offices begins before anyone touches a newly installed antimicrobial door handle.

Many parents, especially those with young children, can’t wait to get back to the relative calm of the office. But they can’t be liberated from the chaos at home until schools and day-care centers resume operations. And those hot spots are expected to be among the last public places to reopen.

While big companies might be able to handle the logistics needed for sanitation and separation, they can’t help employees feel safe commuting to work on transit. “Until there is a workable vaccine, why would I get on SEPTA?” asked Gyourko, who used to take Regional Rail to his Penn office. Some commuters may compromise by organizing car pools, a practice that will be enabled by match-making services on apps like Waze.

Yet, the scariest leg of the trip remains: the gauntlet between the building lobby and the office reception desk. Some building managers will mandate temperature checks before letting employees swipe their security cards. But once the elevator door opens, will anyone share the ride with strangers? And who pushes the button? A few of Philadelphia’s newer high rises have touchless destination pads activated by swiping a card, but most do not.

Then there are the restrooms.

“We still do not know whether a person releases infectious material in feces or just fragmented virus, but we do know that toilet flushing does aerosolize many droplets,” Bromage wrote in his blog post.

Enough said.

None of these concerns seems to have dampened the enthusiasm of Philadelphia’s office developers. Parkway Corp. still expects to break ground this summer on an 18-story building at 23rd and Market for Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a law firm, said Brian Berson, who is overseeing construction. The building was designed with a high-quality air treatment system, but Parkway may beef it up with HEPA filters to remove microscopic particles. The company is also considering installing ultraviolet lights in the ducts to kill germs. Those same techniques can be replicated in existing offices, although both are expensive.

Undaunted by the virus epidemic, Parkway Corp. plans to break ground this summer on a new, 18-story office building for Morgan Lewis & Bockius at 23rd and Market.
Gensler
Undaunted by the virus epidemic, Parkway Corp. plans to break ground this summer on a new, 18-story office building for Morgan Lewis & Bockius at 23rd and Market.

Berson remains convinced that big companies will always want employees to be together in one place. “It’s true that everyone is getting work done more successfully than anyone expected,” he acknowledged. “But there is very little innovation, creativity, or aspiration. When you’re in an office together, you say, ‘Hey, let’s see how we can do that better.'”

Tanya Seaman, who helped launch PhillyCarShare and now works for a climate advocacy group, agrees. She’s desperate to return to the office. “I miss my colleagues,” she said. “As an hourly consultant, I get more work done when I interact with them.”

Yet, despite their optimism, the trend seems to be heading in the other direction. Just this week, Twitter announced it would allow nearly all its employees to work from home even after the virus has passed.

The death of the office building has certainly been predicted before, notably after 9/11. Instead, downtowns boomed.

But that was 20 years ago — before the iPhone, before our work migrated to the cloud, before Zoom. “I would never go back to the office if my employer would allow it,” said Eugene Desyatnik, a Bella Vista resident who travels two hours round-trip by bus to his tech job in King of Prussia.

Given the choice between retrofitting their offices with expensive safety features, or allowing employees to work from home, it’s a good bet that many companies will choose the latter.

But if working at home does become the norm, it will effectively shift the cost of maintaining and renting office space from the company to the employees. Will management compensate them for providing their own workplace, or just pocket the savings?

Matusky is already assembling a checklist of his office’s crucial amenities, in case he decides to downsize. The heart of his operation is a state-of-the art television studio where employees make videos and help prep clients for media interviews. It’s very nice, Matusky said, but “pretty soon everyone is going to be able to set up the same thing at home.”