Returning to your workplace soon?

Things will be different

As the Ontario government moves to restart the economy, companies are planning for the return of temporarily laid-off and work-from-home employees. But given the COVID-19 physical distancing guidelines, the office environment will likely be quite different.

Returning to your workplace soon?

Over the last few years, the trend has been for companies – especially those in high-rent downtown cores – to squeeze as many workers into an open space as possible to save on real estate costs. Typically, the preferred layout had open spaces with workstations in close proximity, with few private offices. In some workplaces, dividers between cubicles are eliminated to encourage teamwork and collaboration. But, now amid fears of COVID-19, these types of densely populated environments are a health hazard.

The post-COVID-19 office space will (and should) look and function differently. There will be greater distance between desks and revised traffic flow, like one-way corridors. Many offices will either strongly recommend masks or make masks mandatory. Wherever possible, workplaces may introduce shift work or flexible hours to reduce the number of staff in the office at one time. This would decrease crowding in places like elevators, copier rooms and cafeterias, it would also create shorter lines for temperature checks. Sanitization practices will have to be adopted after using copier machines and shared meeting rooms.

“It will be a very slow, graduated return to work with employees that are critical to the business,” says Lisa Fulford-Roy, a senior vice-president with commercial real estate giant CBRE, based in Toronto. “A lot of the social areas that we use when we’re at work – break spaces, lunchrooms, food courts, cafés – many of those will be coming back slowly, as well.”

Re-configuring the office to allow space for social distancing and time for deep cleaning may get expensive for some companies, so remote work will most likely be continued by many companies. Annie Bergeron, design director of Gensler, an architectural and design consulting firm in Toronto, advises her clients to modify office hours. “One of the strategies that we are recommending for re-entry into the workplace is either shift work or a balance of work from home and work from the office, so that you don’t have too many people re-entering the workplace at the same time,” she says.

“I think that this idea of maintaining physical distance is going to drive a lot of the decision-making, and for people who don’t need to be in the office, there may be extended work-from-home situations,” says Victoria Arrandale, assistant professor of occupational and environment health at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. The bottom line? For better or for worse, it looks like for many their home will continue to double as an office space.