For years, many office environments in downtown Boston shared a number of key characteristics. These workspaces generally had flexible floor plans where co-workers sat close together in cubicles versus private offices. Featuring a cool-looking aesthetic, these open offices encouraged creativity and teamwork with very little separation between colleagues. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the ‘bullpen’ style of workspace could undergo another period of innovation, with many co-workers reexamining creative, new ways to maximize space and encourage collaboration.
Before the latest transition to open office designs, staff was previously divided by traditional private offices with adjacent cubicles boasting half-walls and compact workspaces. Even in more traditional offices, kitchens were designed as gathering spaces where colleagues could interact and even brainstorm while grabbing a cup of coffee or a quick snack.
This preference for city-based offices grew in popularity after decades of companies opting to headquarter in more suburban locales. More recently, commercial space in the heart of American cities once again became the popular choice, offering easy access to restaurants and bars, mass transit, and other urban amenities. Equally important, here in the Bay State, many Boston- and Cambridge-based companies value easy access to City Hall, the State House, and other business and innovation sectors such as the Seaport and Kendall Square.
However, the coronavirus pandemic could signal a renewed shift in both the approach and layout of commercial real estate for many companies, driving a reimagining of offices in Greater Boston and other metropolitan areas. For instance, essential practices such as social distancing could lead to increased office sizes, and fewer open and shared spaces.
And while some will continue to work remotely, others are ready to return to the workplace. As a result, companies have begun initiating some creative, health-conscious policies that will likely shape the next wave of office space in urban centers.
Some companies are mapping their foot traffic patterns, marking one-way hallways, stairways, and elevators to minimize transmission, a practice adopted by many hospitals during the current outbreak. For safety-sake, desks are placed at least six feet apart or, if not possible, plastic and plexiglass shields may be installed in between workstations.
Facebook is experimenting with virtual scenes and augmented reality stations to limit how much in-person contact employees have in a day. While that may be expensive or difficult to implement for most offices, companies can minimize the number of surfaces employees need to touch by installing doors that open and close automatically using motion sensors and motion features for lighting in the restrooms and hallways. And technologies such as GoToMeeting, Zoom and Microsoft Teams may continue to be used for virtual meetings, in addition to Bluetooth technology for conference areas.
Finally, while closed plan office layouts may rise in popularity again, an emphasis on windows that can open and the use of staircases rather than elevators, which don’t allow for social distancing, could become staples again too.
To be sure, workforces are already reimagining what the ‘new normal’ looks like: how to interact and be productive outside of a traditional office setting. Apps like Globe are connecting people who want to rent space for a short period of time with hosts who have space to offer. And hotels are beginning to provide workstations for people looking to get out of their homes after months of isolation.
As the coronavirus impacts both the economy and the national workforce, many will continue working from home for the foreseeable future, with an increasing number of companies deciding to seek flexible lease options or redesign existing space to allow for the necessary protocols. And with communal areas being revamped to become easier to clean and sanitize, it is clear that while traditional co-working may not be over, change is here for the long-term.