The office you left is not going to be the office you return to

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Your first day headed back to the office will likely feel different from the minute you wake up. Imagine the morning begins with a self-administered Covid-19 symptom and temperature check. An app will report the results to your boss. If all’s well, a low-occupancy company provided shuttle will take you to work. Everyone on it will be wearing a mask.

Once at the office, a second health check. Attendants will strictly control access to doors, elevators and common areas to prevent close contact. The route around the office will be one-way only. Formerly jammed open desk plans will sit half-empty. You may be encased in a makeshift cubicle made of plexiglass sheets.

To avoid overcrowding, keycards or sensors will monitor your whereabouts throughout the day. Your smartphone may vibrate to alert you to coworker traffic, like Waze for commuting to the copy machine. Lunch will come hermetically sealed. Say goodbye to communal coffee breaks.

With cities and states around the country preparing to ease virus restrictions in the coming months, companies are rethinking office life. The pre-Covid workplace, with its shared desks and common areas designed for “creative collisions,” is getting a makeover for the social distancing era. So far, what employers have come up with is a mash-up of airport security style entrance protocols and surveillance combined with precautions already seen at grocery stores, like sneeze guards and partitions.

Like much of the response to the pandemic, it’s an evolving work in progress. But one thing is clear: It will look and feel very different than the offices many abandoned in March.

“The workplaces that we left are not going to be the workplaces that we go back to,” said Joanna Daly, vice president of compensation, benefits and HR business development at International Business Machines. “We're going to have to learn a new way of interacting with each other that was not the way we were interacting a few months ago.”

IBM, along with Hewlett Packard Enterprise, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs Group are among the large U.S. employers readying offices for at least a portion of their white-collar workforce to return over the coming months. To make that happen, they’ve had to rethink the entire working experience. That has meant hiring for new jobs, such as “thermal scanner” and elevator attendants, finding ways to monitor employee whereabouts and health, and retrofitting entire skyscrapers’ worth of space.

Even just getting people to the office presents issues. Many organizations will have phased returns and say they won’t require most people to come back until there’s widespread testing and treatment, or a vaccine. Still, for those called in sooner, a crowded subway or train is neither safe or appealing. About 60% of consumers surveyed by Deloitte the week of April 13 said they plan to limit the use of public transportation over the next three months. Before the pandemic, a third of workers in the New York metro area used transit to get to work, according to Census Bureau data.

Executives at Goldman have mulled dispatching buses to ferry traders to lower Manhattan but that option might only be able to accommodate a fraction of its workers in New York City, according to a person briefed on the discussions. The bank might also allow some employees who live in New Jersey and Connecticut to work from satellite offices in those states so they could drive to work.

Early signs point to a surge in car commuting. Many traders at JPMorgan still considered essential have been driving into its midtown tower; car dealerships in Wuhan, which started opening back up in March, are targeting those avoiding public transit.

The lack of widespread testing in the U.S. has left it up to employers to minimize spread among workers. Hundreds of companies have already hired “thermal scanners” to monitor employees for fevers, according to the Kelly Services staffing agency. There’s also been a spike in job postings for “tracers,” who would track down the contacts of anyone who tests positive for the disease.

Several Wall Street banks and retail and insurance companies have signed on or are in talks to use HealthCheck, a platform that screens employees for Covid-19 symptoms and guides them on whether to stay home or go to work, said Ryan Trimberger, the co-founder of Stratum Technology, which makes the app. The technology helps employers identify hotspots and act accordingly, he said. “[If] you see symptoms coming back, you can have that team broken up into smaller teams or quarantined.” (Stratum’s tracking is anonymous and the company doesn’t keep the data, Trimberger said.)

Convene, a co-working space provider, is launching kiosks for self-serve health screenings. The company, which has over 30 locations in major cities across the U.S., is working with health care provider Eden Health to create something akin to TSA-PreCheck for Covid. Members deemed low-risk, such as those who have recovered from the illness, will get quicker access to its offices. “I don’t think people are necessarily going to be comfortable coming back to work right away,” said Amy Pooser, chief people officer and chief operating officer at Convene. “They’re going to want to know that they’re going to be safe.”

Corgan, a Dallas-based architecture firm, is borrowing ideas from airports and hospitals — places designed with security, hygiene, and crowd control in mind — said Lindsay Wilson, the company’s co-president. Her team is looking into using anti-microbial surfaces found in health care settings for office spaces. BOKA Powell, another Dallas-based architecture firm, got an inquiry from a company to price out adding hands-free bathroom fixtures and automatic doors to a new building. (It added 10% to the cost.)

Companies are looking to a range of solutions to keep people away from one another throughout the day. Many of the measures already in place in China, like one-way walkways, are being considered in the U.S. IBM is looking into using existing sensors or finding new technology to detect when people are too close together or trending in that direction. Convene is removing furniture. Multiple companies are ditching buffet lunch.

The biggest casualty will be the open floor concept, said Mark Canavarro, whose company Obex P.E. has been inundated with requests for hardware and panels to add walls to the low-level partitions on shared desk spaces. In the first 3 weeks of April, his company has done as much business as the entire first quarter of this year, he said. His inbox is overflowing with new inquiries and he’s gaining new distributors weekly.

As eager employees are to leave telecommuting behind, they may not like the new normal, either. IBM, for its part, is planning an employee re-orientation program to set expectations. But it may just take time, said Ken Matos, director of people science at CultureAmp, a worker survey and assessment provider.

“What’s probably going to be running through people’s minds is: ‘Everything else has been disrupted, I just wanted the office to be like it was’,” said Matos, who has a PhD in industrial and organizational psychology. “Give people time to mourn the past, because you may not care about it, but they do.”

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