If you think working from home these last two months has been strange and unsettling, wait until you head back into the office.
Temperature checks. Long lines to get on the elevator. Desks cleared of personal items. One-way corridors and closed meeting rooms. And lunch? Let’s not even go there yet.
While many white-collar workers have been sequestered at home to help stop the spread of COVID-19, landlords and property managers, architects and safety experts have been trying to figure out how to make the office buildings that have been vacant for two months or more into safe places in a pandemic. Now, with a phased-in restart of the local economy imminent, companies are preparing to gradually return to dramatically changed workplaces.
“It will look and feel different, right off the bat,” said Joseph Allen, an assistant professor at Harvard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health and consultant on healthy buildings. “And it will be inconvenient to go to work.”
Depending on the job, the changes may start before your commute begins.
The Cambridge Innovation Center, for instance, home to hundreds of startups in small and flexible office spaces in Kendall Square and downtown, will require people to take their temperature — and enter it on an app — before they come in each day.
It won’t track or store people’s health data, said CEO Tim Rowe. But the hope is that the mere act of temperature-taking will serve as a behavioral prompt ― don’t come in if you’re feeling unwell.
“It’s an honor system. Nobody’s confirming that what you’re reporting on the app is really correct," Rowe said. “But any day you happen to not be feeling well would be a really good day to stay home.”
If your forehead’s cool, get ready for a new work experience, beginning in the lobby.
Concierges and security guards may sit behind plexiglass. Masks will be mandatory. Hand sanitizer dispensers will be everywhere, said Ben Myers, director of sustainability at Boston Properties, one of the city’s largest office landlords. So will janitors.
“We’ll be having crews clean more frequently in the lobbies, everything from door handles to elevator buttons,” said Myers. They’ll make the rounds during the day, too, not the night shift, when such work is typically done. “Visibility is important,” he said.
You might notice something else feels different: The air. Many buildings and landlords are upgrading air filters, to sift out finer particles in an effort to prevent the coronavirus from spreading through HVAC systems. Boston Properties plans to flush its towers with outside air 48 hours before they officially reopen. Some property managers plan to experiment with higher humidity levels, based on the theory that the unusually dry air in air-conditioned towers can more easily spread the virus. It could be a tricky balance to achieve, Allen said.
“That’s one of the things that’s harder to do,” he said. “If you don’t do it right, you could create condensation and mold.”
Then there are the ups and downs that go along with getting to and from the office ― elevators.
Many buildings plan to limit how many people can be in an elevator. Boston Properties will cap it at four passengers to start, no small thing in a skyscraper like 200 Clarendon or the Prudential Center where during busy times each elevator might carry a dozen. That could mean lines of people — socially distanced, of course — waiting to go upstairs. Myers said his company is designing queues in its dozens of lobbies, each one unique to the building’s floor plan.
“We’d like to not have people lined up down the street,” he said. “We want to keep it as much as possible in our lobbies.”
Upstairs, you might pull open the door with a handheld device that resembles a hook — Rowe has ordered 11,000 of them for Cambridge Innovation Center tenants. Or you might just push it open with your foot. Corridors and walking paths could be one-way — no more passing in the hall — and internal doors may be rehung to push outward in both directions, so people never have to pull on a handle or knob.
At your desk, you can perhaps take off the face mask ― there won’t be anyone sitting within at least 6 feet, and your cubicle could be cordoned off by plexiglass. Everything on desk surfaces, including keyboards and phones, may smell of virus-killing disinfectant. Family pictures and stacks of paper will be banned ― they can transmit the disease. Casual conversation won’t be easy.
Even among colleagues, you might feel isolated. Lonely even. That’s partially because there will be fewer people around. Social distancing means sharply reduced capacity in many once densely packed offices. Governor Charlie Baker on Friday asked companies, when possible, to let many employees work remotely for some time to come and some of the state’s largest — MassMutual, Raytheon, Wayfair — said they’d gladly oblige.
Marc Margulies, principle at architecture firm Margulies Perruzzi, said some of his clients expect to bring back just 10 percent of their workers initially to see how it goes.
“The same group of people will work together for two weeks, follow all these protocols, and if they’re OK you bring back 10 percent more,” he said. “Wait another two weeks and bring back 10 percent more. But you never get past 50 percent.”
Meetings, too, will be different. Crowded conference rooms won’t be a popular place to be. And with so many people working from home anyway, many meetings that would typically be held in person will shift to video streaming at your desk. Expect communications tools like the Slack messaging platform to become even more popular.
“I can see people sitting at their desks having a conference with someone instead of going over and talking with them,” said Brian Day, CEO of Fuze, a Boston-based company that provides cloud communications software. “And a lot of technology will shift to apps on your phone.”
That may be how you make your coffee, too, with a touchless app-based coffee maker. If you use the microwave, you’ll need to wipe it down every time. The common kitchens that serve as a cultural hub of so many offices will be changed in all sorts of ways. And if you’ve become accustomed to snacking on trays of leftover rollups from client meetings, bring an extra sandwich from home instead.
“That big deli platter is a thing of the past,” Margulies said. “As much as we might love it, that’s not going to happen again for a long time.”
So many of these changes fly in the face of the way businesses have designed their workplaces for two decades now, trading private offices for open floor plans and aiming to spark collaboration through a steady stream of free food, happy hours, and social events. But even though that’s all going away, workers will find ways to adapt, said Jeanne Nutt, co-managing director in the Boston office of design firm Gensler.
“People will still crave interaction,” she said. “And the office is still going to be a place where organizations create community and culture. It’s just going to be defined differently.”
For how long remains an open question. Most experts say they expect a COVID-19 vaccine will eventually allow the majority of employees to work in offices — though they also expect more of them will choose to stay home one or two days a week. Social distancing mandates will gradually ease. But the lessons of this experience will likely stick around for a long time.
Allen likens it to the period after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when airports and skyscrapers rushed to incorporate new security measures. Some of those fast-tracked protective actions were aggravating or ultimately proved needless. Over time, efforts to bolster security became smarter, less intrusive. Today, the stanchions and extra security guards introduced during that era have simply become part of the landscape — barely noticeable.
“The goal with security is you walk in and you don’t think about it,” Allen said. “The goal should be the same with healthier buildings. We’re not there yet. But we will be.”