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How COVID-19 will shape the way, the where and the how we work

This is the fourth instalment in a series looking at the world we’ll live in post-pandemic — in this case, how the health emergency is redefining the way we work and where we get the work done.

The next time you want to weigh in on a co-worker’s spreadsheet, expect to do so from a desk down the hall, through a clear plastic shield or from your kitchen table at home.

That’s likely to be the new world order as we head back to work, a Winnipeg real estate specialist, an architect and a human resources consultant say.

“You better believe that when companies start rolling employees back into the office, it’s not going to be the same,” said Aaron DeGroot, president of the commercial realtor Cushman & Wakefield/Stevenson.

And whatever you do, don’t expect to shake each other’s hands on a job well done.

“The bullpen, so to speak, is not going to look like what it did, pre-pandemic.”

Aaron DeGroot, president of Cushman & Wakefield/Stevenson, says his Netherland colleagues created a 6 Feet Office concept to act as a guide for creating safe workspaces. (Cory Aronec Photography)

DeGroot and his team are among commercial realtors, architects and human resource specialists redefining what it could mean to head back to the office in the summer of 2020.

Since February, businesses have closed their physical spaces and employees have picked up the slack from their homes — all in a global effort to physically distance and curb the spread of COVID-19.

But a May 2020 Conference Board of Canada survey suggests that 30 per cent of employees will be required to continue working remotely on a permanent basis.

Another 40 per cent are preparing to return to offices to work, but with changes.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of pressure and a lot of hardship on many employers” to come up with creative, financially viable solutions, said Barbara Bowes, of LegacyBowes Organizational Consultants.

Pre-pandemic, it was all about density.… Now that’s going to be flipped on its head.– Aaron DeGroot, Cushman & Wakefield/Stevenson

For starters, open area work spaces — once heralded as a “new method of exploring social relationships at work” — are now being acknowledged for what they really are, said Wins Bridgman, a director of BridgmanCollaborative Architecture.

“The open office was always a calculated understanding that you needed to get as many people into your real estate as possible,” Bridgman said. 

“But we really knew, always, that it was a loud space. It worked for some people and probably really didn’t work for others.”

Recent history also reveals it has potentially deadly consequences.

In February, an employee working in the crowded, open-concept 11th floor of a South Korea call centre exhibited COVID-19 symptoms. Weeks later, 94 colleagues — of 216 of that floor — had developed the virus.

The good news? Architects have taken note.

“Pre-pandemic, it was all about density. How many people can we get in a small office space?” DeGroot said. “Now that’s going to be flipped on its head.”

The better news?

“We’re actually going to like it,” he said.

Colleagues at the Cushman & Wakefield office in the Netherlands have created the 6 Feet Office, a “road map” for employees returning to the office, he said.

The concept? Keep it open — no closed-off cubicles — without the crowding; everything from desks to hallways is spaced out six feet.

Floor markers guide workers walking clockwise through the space in one directional aisles (like those now in grocery stores).

We were delighted to see … the bathrobes, the dogs in the background and the kitchen coffee grinder– Wins Bridgman, BridgmanCollaborative Architecture

Glass barriers around desks will contain the spread of germs if anyone’s coughing or sneezing.

And the rest? Good old-fashioned — but now standard — sanitation.

“You know, making sure that you’re wiping everything down, every time you use it,” DeGroot said.

“And frequent hand-washing. I can’t stress that enough, obviously.”

The 6 Feet Office design is currently being incorporated — on paper, at this time — into planned renovations of the Cushman & Wakefield/Stevenson Winnipeg offices.

They’ll encourage clients to consider it, too.

The results will be a win for employees, DeGroot said.

“The general feeling that your employees are going to have is that this is a safe place to be.”

Then there’s the option that some employers (think Twitter, for example) want to make permanent — working from home.

What started as a necessary — but temporary — response to the pandemic is now gaining more traction as a viable way of working, Wins Bridgman said.

“We will not necessarily again every day get up and go to the office,” he said.

“That period of time is over.”

WIns Bridgman says parts of working from home have been ‘really, really marvelous.’ (Submitted by Wins Bridgman)

He and his Winnipeg team of “co-producers” have been working remotely since March.

“We were delighted to see, as we are on Zoom and everything else, the bathrobes, the dogs in the background and the kitchen coffee grinder,” he said.

“The personal life is really just present in there and that people are happily working.”

It’s a revelation that defies historic trends. Buildings (like his own office space) were erected in the early 20th century to contain a solid labyrinth of bricks and mortar, high ceilings and small rooms, closed off from the outside, insular in concept, layout and design.

“I’m not going to say ‘imprison,’ because that was never the intent,” Bridgman said.

“But it was to tell you that for 30 or 40 years of your working life, come rain or shine, you would be there.”
Working remotely, therefore, is liberating, he said.

“It’s marvellous.”

Bridgman does not, however, underestimate the power of person-to-person contact when it comes to creative collaboration. That’s why he suggests businesses should also incorporate in-person meetings at whatever office space they keep, even if it means meeting in shifts, alternating teams and even alternating locations.

“The office building now becomes the place where we get together, where we could meet,” he said, “as opposed to [only] where we work.”

Not all businesses will be able to afford modifications to make workspaces safe during the pandemic, says Barbara Bowes, of LegacyBowes Organizational Consultants. (Submitted by Barbara Bowes)

Barbara Bowes suggests another option — leasing office spaces for an hour, a day or a seminar, much as one leases a conference room at a hotel.

It could be a viable option for smaller businesses that don’t have the capital to finance a costly post-pandemic makeover, but that do rely on face-to-face interaction among colleagues or with clients.

“Not everyone wants to meet a client at their home,” Bowes said.

Regardless, the way we work and where we work is changed, and that change is likely permanent, the real estate specialist, the architect and the HR consultant all say.

“We are living in buildings that were for a different time, even if they were made last year,” Bridgman said.

“So we’re creatively adapting … and it allows us to move forward, to think more clearly about what we need at this time.”

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