Sarah Green Carmichael

Why Open Offices Will Survive

When I think back to pre-coronavirus office life, it almost seems designed to spread germs.

There’s the hour-long commute on the crowded train; the steady flow of fingers poking at elevator buttons and coffee machines; and our open rows of desks with nary a cube wall to prevent a surprise sneeze from traveling across the room. It’s perhaps not surprising that a 2013 study found that germs can spread from one person’s hand to half of office surfaces in just four hours.

We clearly need to do better in the post-lockdown future. But how?

The essential organizations that remained open during the coronavirus shutdowns offer some clues. They reduced crowding by staggering shifts, asking some employees to work from home and designating corridors for one-way travel. They installed clear plastic barriers at cash registers and reception desks. Some implemented temperature checks, though those aren’t foolproof, since asymptomatic people can spread the virus and even many hospitalized Covid-19 patients never develop a fever.

You might be wondering if we’ll see major architectural changes too — some have even predicted the end of open offices. But this isn’t likely. Such redesigns are expensive and intrusive, says Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, an assistant professor at Purdue University and author of the forthcoming “Open Plan: A Design History of the American Office.” In the midst of a severe recession, most firms can’t afford to splash out for new spaces. Even if we’ll be social distancing for two more years, a big office remodel probably doesn’t make much financial sense.

Human behavior is easier to change than architecture. And open offices, with their flexible spaces, allow for very different behaviors. This adaptability is why the open office has resisted all attempts to kill it, and also why it is surprisingly well-suited to this moment of change.

Germophobes worried about open offices long before the coronavirus pandemic. Studies conducted in Europe linked open-plan offices with reduced well-being and higher use of sick days, though it’s not clear whether this is because germs spread more easily, or because being always on display reduces productivity and increases stress.

Critics also like to point out that open offices are even bad at the one thing they’re supposed to do well: foster collaboration. Harvard’s Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber of Humanyze studied companies that switched to open floor plans and found that face-to-face conversations fell by 70% after the change.
Nevertheless, these wide open spaces have persisted.

“[The open office] has really been with us since the 1960s, and some would say even earlier than that,” says Kaufmann-Buhler. The earliest iterations go back to the late 19th century and look much like they do today: rows of desks in large, open spaces.

Open plans “are never going away,” says Kaufmann-Buhler, though they’ve been “declared dead so many times.” Every time she sees a headline announcing as much, she thinks to herself, “Ah, the open plan is dead, long live the open plan.”

That’s because it’s a design that’s extremely cost effective. It’s not just the lack of walls, or the number of people you can pack in. It’s that private offices require more of everything — doors, ventilation ducts, energy consumption. Plus, open workspaces let in more light, and allow you to easily make eye contact with colleagues — something I find I miss about the Bloomberg offices these days.

And open plans are adaptable, whether it’s a Mad Men-era secretarial pool or a modern-day coworking space. You can easily add (or subtract) workers, and rearrange desks and other equipment as needed. In fact, that flexibility is what companies are going to be relying on now, as they push desks further apart, add panels or partitions and commandeer large communal spaces, like conference rooms, for other purposes.

That’s not to say there are no physical upgrades that are worthwhile. Those lucky companies with deep pockets could invest in touchless technology, like motion-sensor doors, light switches and bathroom faucets, to limit the common surfaces employees interact with.

If your HVAC system is getting a bit long in the tooth, this would be a great time to invest in a newer system that offers air filtration. “Older [systems] are woefully out of date and inadequate in terms of protective elements,” says Kaufmann-Buhler. Some of them recirculate air too much and run the risk of spreading germs.

Because major upgrades are likely to be out of reach for most companies, many firms will rely on behavior change — which can be quite powerful. In that 2013 study that showed germs spreading to half the office by lunchtime, simple interventions like washing hands, using hand sanitizer and providing employees with free cleaning wipes slashed people’s risk of getting sick from 40-90% to less than 10%.

And companies will certainly be beefing up their cleaning schedules, particularly in common areas like bathrooms, break rooms and elevators. This alone would be a major change. As it is, “Offices are kind of gross places,” says Kaufmann-Buhler. They don’t seem that dirty in the first place, so they tend to get only lightly cleaned by the overworked and underpaid contractors most firms hire.
Firms in skyscrapers will also have to figure out ways to minimize contact around doors and elevators. The easiest solution may be to employ doormen and elevator attendants, and stagger working hours to avoid long queues.

Organizations that have served food, free or otherwise, will likely reconsider how they do so — if they keep serving it at all. For one thing, in the middle of a recession (or even a depression) with perhaps 20% unemployment, companies may no longer feel they need to offer costly perks like free meals. (Note to my employer: This is not a recommendation! I dearly miss the Bloomberg food.) At the very least, company cafeterias will likely ask employees to stagger their lunch breaks to avoid crowding. Instead of eating off an open deli tray with friends, you’ll probably be taking a boxed lunch back to your desk to eat six feet away from anyone else.

And yet it is inescapable that prolonged, indoor proximity is the primary way this virus is spreading — and such contact is inescapable if people return to work, regardless of the precautions organizations take. That’s why many firms will rightly encourage employees to keep working from home and visit the office only when absolutely necessary.

Even then, instead of dropping in whenever you like, your visits will be scheduled. Some organizations are dividing their staffs into two teams, which take turns coming into the office on alternate weeks or fortnights. (Given how long the virus can survive on surfaces, it’s probably not a good idea to ask employees to come in on alternate days. Give the germs at least a weekend to degrade.)

Swabs of everyday items routinely find that it’s the things we’re always touching with our hands that are the dirtiest — that means keyboards, phones, mice and trackpads. This may portend the end of hotdesking (in which employees have no permanent workstation, but simply sit wherever they like) and a major revamp of hoteling (in which employees share a specific workstation on a rotating, scheduled basis).

And forget holding large face-to-face meetings. Those will still have to take place via videoconference.

“All of this is going to have a huge impact on the ways people interact with each other and the way people think about work,” Kaufmann-Buhler says.

In other words, if you’ve been missing your office these past eight weeks, that feeling of dislocation may not dissipate even if you return to HQ. No matter what your office looks like, it will feel very different.