Before the coronavirus pandemic struck in the United States, employees at the commercial real estate firm Binswanger sat with clients who wanted to remodel their office work spaces and mulled everything from floor plans to fabric swatches for new furniture.

The evergreen favorites: open floor plans; large conference rooms; sprawling auditoriums. Ideally, employers said, they would bring dozens to hundreds of employees together in a physically uninhibited office to foster creativity, productivity, and collegiality.

Then came the antithesis of those very designs: social distancing.

“Everyone has taken a pause to say, ‘What is this going to look like on the other side, and does that mean I still want the same thing?’” said David Binswanger, chief executive of the Philadelphia-based firm. “... The issues of parking, conference rooms, public meeting spaces, the big auditoriums, the cafeterias, are all being rethought."

Common new protocol mandates that employees maintain six feet of distance from one another, wash their hands often, avoid close contact in narrow corridors, and stay home if they experience possible coronavirus symptoms.

Clients nearly finished with their redesigns now have to adapt to social-distancing guidelines the best they can. Those who had only begun to redesign before the pandemic have time to rethink plans entirely, Binswanger said, referencing a client who “thought they could never not work together.”

“Now they’re rethinking that whole model," he said. “They’re worried if they put everyone together, it could cost them their business because they don’t want everyone to get sick at once.”

Companies midway through an overhaul, he said, are in the most difficult situation. “If you’re in the middle, you’re in no man’s land," Binswanger said. “They might be able to rethink it, but they’ll spend a lot of money.”

It doesn’t — yet — mean the abandonment of the open office and the return of the opaque and blocky cubicle.

“It’s an egg crate scenario with these tall, tall panels,” said Maria Peña, director of sales and design at cubicles.com, adding that she had noticed that glass and polycarbonate shields that could be set up around individual work spaces were increasingly popular. “... We’re coming up with solutions that are temporary.”

Research has found that neither binary option — free-ranging open space or cloistered cubicles — necessarily encourages the optimal workplace culture or workflow.

Studies and experiments are still trying to find the ideal setup, according to the Harvard Business Review. Pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline considered how to best remodel its London headquarters by hiring architecture and behavioral science professionals to help decide how to organize the space.

The company tracked the performance and collaboration of two experimental teams, as well as their heart rate, blood pressure, posture, and other physiological measurements, with plans to use the data to choose the ideal design, ergonomics, air quality, and even the scent of the new office.

An open office space at a GSK office in North America.
File Photograph
An open office space at a GSK office in North America.

Yet, the Business Review found, “a single best physical or digital workspace architecture will never be found. That’s because more interaction is not necessarily better, nor is less. The goal should be to get the right people interacting with the right richness at the right times.”

In the pandemic, employers have to contend how to manage the juncture of safety and communication. The range of workplaces can further complicate safety changes necessitated by the virus.

Some employees can crack a ground-level window for fresh air. Those in a skyscraper office, in contrast, may not. Square footage could determine how many employees would return, and where they would work proximate to their colleagues.

“We are engaged with many clients who are looking for ways to adapt their workplace to a post-pandemic environment,” said Linda Pileggi, design director in Philadelphia for the global design and architecture firm Gensler. “Open floor plans can be adapted for social distancing by using only every other desk or putting partitions between desks that face each other. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to this."

Small but immediate solutions, she said, would be fewer chairs in conference rooms to limit the number of people. At offices where employees are encouraged to be mobile — carrying a laptop from one place to another to interact with coworkers, for instance — employers could ask them to pick a dedicated spot to work and clean it frequently.

For more drastic changes, Gensler relied on a software program it created called ReRun that would digitally rearrange an office layout to show how it could best accommodate social distancing.

Even so, the mere act of social distancing in the office — particularly when the office culture is casual or close-knit — can feel bizarre. At times, it can even be unnerving, said Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Alphabet, the parent of Google.

“Our campuses are designed to enable collaboration and community — in fact, some of our greatest innovations were the result of chance encounters in the office — and it’s clear this is something many of us don’t want to lose,” he said in a message to Google employees in late May.

Amenitized offices, such as those with green spaces or fitness centers, would likely remain popular, Pileggi said, to “support employees’ physical and mental health.”

Nationally, employers and commercial building managers have been strongly encouraged to establish strict cleaning protocol, limit entry and exit ways, and take the temperatures of workers before they enter an office, NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, said in guidance released June 9.

The association recommended that employers consider bringing back workers in phases until the outbreak is no longer a major public health threat. Another suggestion was to put less vulnerable employees on a rotation that alternates days in the office and at home.

“We are glad to see the gradual and steady reopening of our office workplaces,” Thomas J. Bisacquino, the organization’s president, said in a statement. “We have to do this correctly to keep people safe and to avoid a resurgence of this disease."

Other tools, such as motion-activated faucets and doors, and air purification systems, also remain important, said Pileggi, of Gensler’s Philadelphia office.

The SEPTA board in its meeting room in 2019. In the building now, all employees must wear masks and "we are focusing on cleaning and social distancing," a spokesperson said.
Heather Khalifa / File Photograph
The SEPTA board in its meeting room in 2019. In the building now, all employees must wear masks and "we are focusing on cleaning and social distancing," a spokesperson said.

SEPTA — among the biggest employers in Philadelphia, with about 9,000 workers — said it would scan the temperatures of employees who work at the transportation agency’s headquarters in Philadelphia, to mirror practices already in place at other locations that serve as hubs for front-line personnel.

Independence Blue Cross said it would monitor which workers entered its buildings by looking at who swiped their worker identification cards upon entry, and like SEPTA, also take temperatures.

Other corporations, such as Comcast, said they were developing plans for employees to eventually return “but don’t have anything further to share at this time,” said Jennifer Bilotta, a company spokesperson.

At SEPTA, “we are focusing on cleaning and social distancing,” said Andrew Busch, a transit-agency spokesperson, adding that employees had been directed to wear masks when away from their desks and offices, and the agency has installed barriers between work spaces, as necessary. Some employees continue to work virtually. “Like we have done throughout the transit system, we are doing additional cleanings and sanitizing of work spaces.”

The agency was expected to have further direction when the region moves out of the current yellow phase of coronavirus mitigation and into the green phase.

Even so, the possibility of a second wave of the coronavirus in the fall has demanded heightened, and for some, lasting, vigilance about safety.

“Coming out of this in the long run ... you have to make some changes to the way you deal with space now,” Binswanger said. “In terms of circulation, in terms of number of people, in terms of spacing, all of those things are being looked at extra hard.”