YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The changes to business operations as a result of the coronavirus were nearly instant. Overnight, millions found themselves out of the office and working from home.
One survey, conducted by ZipRecruiter, estimated that two-thirds of Americans were working remotely. On the job-recruitment website, 11.3% of listings explicitly offer the opportunity to work from home, compared to just 1.3% before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eventually, the pandemic will end and the question will become what offices will need in the future. The answer seems to be “flexibility.”
Even before the coronavirus, Phillips Sekanick Architects saw a shift toward office spaces that could be used for multiple purposes or shifted to accommodate workers as needed. Now, that trend has only been reinforced, says Bruce Sekanick, principal of the Warren firm.
“You can basically build a system with walls that are glass or partially glass or opaque. They can be deconstructed easily and moved around. We’ve seen a lot of that used in combination with the cube systems,” he says. “If we find out today that we need to reconfigure to keep space [between employees], that works easily.”
Likewise, at Modern Office Products, owner Bill Cross says he’s taken many requests since mid-March for separation panels. It may not be the return of oceans of cubicles, but Cross predicts a shift away from wide-open offices and a return to individual workstations.
“You may see some additional spreading out, if there’s room, or half panels that come up maybe 18 inches above the desk or use of glass panels. You can keep that open environment but still have barriers,” he says. “My gut feeling is we’re going to see more separation in some way, whether through open space or panels.”
In recent years, Platz Realty Group agent Bill Kutlick offers an estimate that the typical office afforded each worker 200 to 300 square feet, down half from what it was years ago. That decline has largely been because of technology, he says, and predates the coronavirus outbreak. That figure isn’t likely to expand again because of measures instituted to protect against COVID-19.
“I don’t know that most offices have the luxury of having the expanses of doubling their office size,” Kutlick says. “Most businesses can accommodate the six-foot restriction and/or can work with different shifts and lunch hours. … If your office space is that tight, they’ll limit the number of people in and out.”
By and large, Sekanick, Cross and Kutlick expect the people who work from home to return to the office, either permanently or on new schedules that include some time working from home.
Nationally, the expectation is that the coronavirus pandemic has revealed both the desire and capability to work from home. A survey of 317 chief financial officers by Gartner found that 74% plan to keep at least 5% of their staffs working remotely. And corporate real estate research firm CoreNet Global reported in its April survey that 69% of its members plan to use smaller offices as more people work from home.
“There will be a long-term adjustment to our location strategy,” Barclays CEO Jes Staley said during the financial company’s first-quarter earnings call. “The notion of putting 7,000 people in the building may be a thing of the past.”
But working from home brings its own challenges, especially when the shift has happened so quickly. In the days following Gov. Mike DeWine’s stay-at-home order, Tele-Solutions Inc. was in overdrive working to provide clients the equipment and software needed to have staff work remotely.
“That sounds easy. But not everyone has an environment where that’s completely ready to go,” says Vice President Jason Wurst. “There are a couple layers to it. One is being able to connect to those systems and access the things you need to function. More importantly, it has to work and be stable and, No. 2, it has to be safe. You can’t just open your doors to the internet and hope everything works. In today’s internet, that’s a terrible idea. Those gates can let anybody in.”
And while the IT services company envisioned working remotely as the future of business at some distant point, most clients made the move as a reaction, not as part of a bigger plan.
“They had to make sure that instead of closing their doors, they could function and keep their people safe. It wasn’t forward-thinking; it was more reactionary,” he says. “Even for us, this has been eye-opening. We’ve been able to utilize new technology and think about how we function differently.”
With that transition, both the investment in technology and the comfort around people working from home, Wurst expects the coronavirus has signaled a massive shift in the idea of a workspace.
“I don’t think it’ll ever go back to how it was. As we do this and get better at it, the ease of transitioning to this kind of work environment is there. And there’s a cost savings for a lot of employers in doing this. For employees, there’s a flexibility because there’s no commute, no cost with getting to work,” he says. “But that doesn’t work for every kind of staff. If you’re a manufacturer or have deliveries, it won’t work. At our company, it doesn’t work for everyone. We still have field staff that need to go out.”
But not every home is suited for remote work. And that’s likely what will usher a return to the workplace, Platz’s Kutlick says.
“Everything I read indicates that a lot of people who thought the idea of working from home was going to be great want to be back in the office,” he says. “They want the interaction with other associates and the structure an office brings.”
An accounting professor at Youngstown State University, Marsha Huber, backs up that line of thinking. Businesses are likely to see the positives of remote work – several studies before the coronavirus showed increased productivity when employees work from home, although the virus has muddied current examinations – but people also don’t want to be confined to their homes at all times.
“Some are going stir crazy. They want interaction. They want to be with their co-workers,” Huber says.
Many homes aren’t designed with a dedicated office space in mind, Sekanick says. His firm is usually working on a single residential project at a time and, like the corporate project, flexibility is atop the list.
“When you’re working from home like this, you want a nice place to look out at. You don’t want to be trapped in a room with no windows. You want to be in a space that can be quiet when necessary and can be opened up to other people when you need to,” Sekanick says.
Huber, on sabbatical at Harvard, and a classmate, Aleshia Howell, are conducting surveys of business owners and workers on their reactions to the pandemic in conjunction with Princeton economics and public affairs professor Christopher Neilson.
“Until this virus is over, there’s going to be a huge change in work. No. 1, there’s social distancing and people are dealing with their anxieties and fears. No. 2, there’s the economy. In our survey, business owners said the best cure is to get this over with,” Huber says. “They can see that things aren’t going to return to normal, to life before. After there is a cure, I think people are going to be more thoughtful about how they can do business better given their experience with technology at this time.”
But, like TSI’s Wurst, Huber notes that not all businesses are able to work remotely.
“If you’re an accountant, how do you do audits? How do you work with clients?” she asks. “When you’re supposed to do a physical inventory, how do you do that if you’re remote?”
The biggest change is likely to be the concept of work hours. Without standard office times like a commute or lunch break, employees at home are often setting their own hours and working on schedules best for them. Previous research, Huber says, shows that such workers aren’t “cheating” and working less than if they were in a company office.
“They go to a [home] office, close the door and they work. Because they’re home, they’re more productive,” she says. “But it doesn’t work for everybody because we all have different needs. Some of us have to have social interaction and some don’t. Some people can’t even work around other people because they find them disruptive.”
Gone, Sekanick suggests, might be the idea of a 9-to-5 workday. The ripple effect from that could impact hiring practices and figuring out where to put desks.
“This is allowing people to understand that they’re not stuck to that timeframe or five-day period. Maybe offices will be used differently at different times of the day. Maybe it’s not always a five-day work week; maybe it’s three days,” he says. “Right now, if you hire someone, you have to find a desk for that person. Maybe now, you have one person work from home two days a week and the other person can use that desk on those days.
“All of this will change the way employers think.”
Pictured: Bill Cross, owner of Modern Office, predicts offices will start to use barriers between desks again, even if they aren’t the full-wall cubicles of the past.