Many companies, including the one I work for, had hoped to have a staged return-to-office plan up and running by this past September. Instead, the news about COVID deaths and new cases just keeps getting worse, even as we see the beginnings of hope with vaccines starting to become publicly available. On balance, it seems reasonable to plan for some level of return to offices late in the first quarter of next year — knowing that, once again, we could wind up being disappointed in our progress toward overcoming the virus.
But if facilities managers, HR leaders, and IT departments are to get the return-to-office effort back on track, their first concern of course will be reassuring employees that the office is safe. In the optimistic scenario, vaccines and warming weather in northern climates will be starting to bring down incidence of virus spread and, simultaneously, people’s claustrophobia after a year of physical containment will be at the boiling point. But employees will undoubtedly continue to have concerns.
A recent post
on the website of design firm Gensler highlighted an example where enterprise leaders will have to weigh lingering employee concerns against the physical realities of office designs in the not-yet-post-COVID world.
The pandemic has led many companies to plan a permanent shift from limited work from home to a more flexible model, where more employees can work from home a few days a week. To make this work financially when it comes to office space, designs will have to account for much more sharing of space and resources than previously. That’s where the challenge comes in.
Citing the company’s U.S. Workplace Survey 2020
, Gensler authors Janet Pogue McLaurin and Christine Barber note that U.S. employees worry about sharing desks in a future workplace scenario. “In the U.S., 90% prefer an assigned desk used only by them,” they write. “When asked if they would be willing to trade increased flexibility to work from home for an unassigned seat, most people (61%) said they’d still prefer not to share a desk, even if it meant coming into the office more frequently.”
This concern is not shared by Gensler survey respondents in the U.K., France, and Australia, nor does it seem to be grounded in fact, as best it can be determined. The Gensler authors posed the issue to Dr. Michael Gao, founder of medical analytics company Haven Diagnostics and assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College. “To my knowledge, there still hasn’t been a single study that’s demonstrated transmission of COVID-19 through surface contamination several hours after virus was deposited,” he told them. “As a result, the CDC has updated their website to say that surface or object contact, especially for contact where someone was sitting the day before, is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
Gao added that doctors in New York hospitals shared desks during the peak of the virus, “and I do not know of a single case of COVID-19 that resulted from that.”
So if you’re an enterprise that’s planning for a 2021 return to the office, and employees have told you they want more flexible remote-work policies — but that many of them also miss their colleagues and the energy of the office and want to return — what do you do with this information? What’s the likelihood that you can persuade reluctant desk-sharers that the risk is low? And if you can’t persuade them, does this throw a monkey wrench into your plan to scale back the office as part of a calculated plan for balancing resource allocation with employee desires?
Maybe the best hope is that, as the virus recedes — whenever that is — that the level of ambient anxiety about it recedes as well.