Here's what the post-coronavirus office could look like under new CDC guidelines

Daily health checks, staggered shifts and more time outdoors could become part of the routine.
The Future of the Office SQUARE
The American office will likely look very different in the post-coronavirus era.TODAY illustration

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By Callie Patteson

The design of the open office and modern workspaces has long been driven by the desire for increased collaboration and productivity of employees. But during the coronavirus pandemic, many Americans are now working from home.

In early April, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology surveyed 25,000 American workers and found that 34% of those who had been employed four weeks earlier were currently working from home. The survey also found that roughly 15% of workers had been working from home before the virus hit, making it possible that nearly half the U.S. workforce was working remotely.

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Nearly two months later, people are starting to wonder when they can get back to the office and what it might look like. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered a glimpse of the future with new guidelines explaining how office buildings can begin to reopen as restrictions ease up.

The nation's top public health agency recommends that companies check the entire building's readiness before employees head back to the office. That means ensuring proper ventilation, increased circulation of outdoor air and checking hazards associated with "prolonged facility shutdown," like mold, rodents or stagnant water systems.

Furthermore, employees who develop symptoms related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, upon arrival to work or during the workday should be sent home, and "enhanced" cleaning and disinfection should take place following any confirmed cases in the office.

And as for the regular workday? You can likely say goodbye to handshakes, Bagel Mondays, crowded conference rooms, group chitchat by the coffee machine, packed elevators and more. Instead, per the CDC guidelines, look for:

  • Face coverings all day: Employees should wear a cloth face mask "in all areas of the business."
  • Social distancing around the clock: Employees should try to stay 6 feet apart, which means that for most offices, elevators should carry only one person at a time. If desks can't be spaced this far apart, the federal agency recommends installing transparent shields or other physical barriers. The guidelines also advise prohibiting handshakes, hugs and fist bumps.
  • More outdoors time: It's not all bad. With the coronavirus spreading more easily indoors, the CDC encourages workers to have lunches, breaks and meetings outdoors whenever possible.
  • Frequent hand-washing and cleaning: Keep humming the ABCs or your song of choice. Individuals should frequently wash hands for at least 20 seconds and to wipe down surfaces. The CDC also recommends regularly disinfecting "high-touch surfaces" like doorknobs, keyboards, printers and telephones. Companies should provide employees with disposable cleaning wipes and other cleaning materials.
  • Fewer communal snacks: The CDC recommends replacing items like coffee pots or bulk snacks with prepackaged or single-serving options.
  • Daily health checks: Regular temperature screenings before employees enter the workplace could also become part of your new office routine.
  • Staggered shifts and break times: To prevent crowding in break rooms and other spaces, employers might experiment with different shifts or even alternate having some workers rotate in the office while the rest stay home.
  • Less use of public transportation: The CDC recommends providing incentives to employees to minimize the use of public transit, particularly during rush hour.

Employers should also identify areas where employees may congregate, such as break rooms, meeting rooms, waiting areas or main entry and exit points. Visual cues, such as arrows on the floor, can also encourage distancing or guide foot traffic throughout the office.

Many of these concepts are incorporated in the "6 feet office," a design developed by the Netherlands branch of commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield.

It gives a look at the workplace in the "post-corona era," in which disposable desk pads abound and floor stickers and arrows indicate where employees should stand and how they should circulate through the building (clockwise, always).

Pete Hanson, director of talent development at Turbocam International, a manufacturing company headquartered in Barrington, New Hampshire, told TODAY via email that the CDC guidelines have been helpful. Since the company is deemed an essential manufacturer, Turbocam has had to adopt proper and safe practices for office jobs and on the production floor.

"It means a lot less people in the office areas," he said. "People are getting really good at virtual meetings and doing things differently." In terms of production, Turbocam employees clean their workstations and machines several times per shift while maintaining social distancing as much as possible. The company has also added signs in conference rooms for maximum occupancy and instituted a "one person per table" rule in the cafeterias. Foot pulls have also been added to the bottom of closed doors for touch-free access, while the cleaning staff has conducted "endless loops" to clean surfaces.

The CDC's recommendation to install transparent shields like plexiglass isn't a new idea. Several office furniture manufacturers saw a shift in that direction late last year as more companies looked to implement midsized cubicles with lower walls — a hybrid between the open office and the classic tall-walled cubicles.

Workers talk with each other through a protective screen at in an office at a BMW South Africa plant in Midrand, South Africa, on May 29.Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

And there's some evidence that using barriers makes sense. A 2016 study found that 16% of flu transmissions happen in the workplace. Additionally, earlier this year, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified the path of the coronavirus in a workplace in Seoul, South Korea. Out of more than a thousand people tested, it found that nearly all of the 97 employees who contracted COVID-19 worked together on the 11th floor — almost entirely on the same side of the room. A similar review of the spread of the virus in a Wuhan, China, restaurant showed how air conditioning and the direction of airflow aided droplet transmission across one side of the room.

Businesses may have more time than they think to put these solutions into place.

"Companies, surprisingly, don't want to go back to work," Russell Hancock, president and CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, told The New York Times.

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While the guidelines released by the CDC aren't required for all businesses to adopt, they are steps that all employers can take to create a safer workspace that helps protect employees and clients.

If you are worried about the risk of exposure, there are CDC guidelines that you can follow, including wearing a mask, keeping a clean workspace and continuing to practice social distancing.