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What to expect from your future office: plexiglass and fewer in-person co-workers

The coronavirus pandemic is changing the "shared work environment," says an expert from Harvard's School of Public Health. Plexiglass is among things to expect after working from home.

Twenty/20

Before the coronavirus pandemic, co-working spaces like WeWork were the fastest growing type of office space in commercial real estate, seeing "a 31.1% year-over-year increase" between 2018 and 2019 in New York alone, according to real estate data source Yardi Matrix.

Open offices, or those without barriers between desks, were also quite popular. The hot desk trend, in which workers didn't have specific, assigned desks but had to find a space to work when they arrived, was also gaining traction.

As the pandemic continues, though, offices are changing. "I think as we move into the future," says Jack Dennerlein, associate director at the Center for Work, Health, and Well-being at Harvard's School of Public Health, "we'll see new visions of the shared work environment."

Here's what to expect:

'Separation' techniques like plexiglass  

While the pandemic persists, beyond just being asked to wear masks and social distance, workers who are called back may find that offices are installing see-through partitions between desks. "When I look at what the future is going to look like in the office," says Dennerlein, "there are going to be these separation controls" and other "barriers" to help keep co-workers a safe distance apart.

"Plexiglass is kind of old-fashioned," he says, "but it works, it's separation."

Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested that those companies that want to bring workers back into an office "install transparent shields or other physical barriers" to separate employees.

VIDEO8:2808:28
Will office spaces look the same after coronavirus?

Video by Courtney Stith

Fewer employees in the office

Many employees will continue working from home. "A lot of the business [...] will be done remotely" going forward, says author and former VP of Twitter Europe, the Middle East, and Africa Bruce Daisley.

What that will look like for each company will likely vary. Companies like Twitter have announced their employees can work from home indefinitely, and Facebook will let employees work remote at least until July 2021. Other companies may accept some balance of the two, where employees work from home part of the time and come in for the rest.

Daisley points to the example of the tech company Automattic, where people work from home the vast majority of the time. Then, for four weeks each year, the team comes together in person. "They're really clear that while they let you work remotely 48 weeks a year," he says, "part of the deal is that they do want your presence and your energy and your connectivity in those things."

"The companies that have gone completely remote," he says, "do not say these [physical] human relations aren't important. They say, actually, we need to build them in a different way."

Some features will remain, like conference rooms

Not everything about traditional offices will shift. Conference rooms, for example, will stick around, predicts Daisley. As companies think long term about a model that will work both in helping their employees remain productive and maintaining company culture and a sense of connection, having a place to gather when necessary will be important.

"One of the things that you discover about companies that go completely remote is they talk about [the things] they miss," he says. "They need rooms and meetings for the big presentations, and so I suspect offices will keep these showrooms."

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