Will COVID-19 Kill the Open-Plan Office?

The Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has been a thoroughly miserable experience. The one bright spot may be the death knell it spells for the open-plan office as we know it.
Limited space will make old-style cubicles unlikely to return, but companies may be compelled to add dividers on three sides of each desk. It may no longer be considered hygienic to have two people sitting side-by-side or face-to-face with nothing in between them.

Of course, not having any barrier between ourselves and colleagues has always been unpleasant for many of us. The good news is now it won’t just be unpleasant for some; it may be judged dangerous for all.

How will the pandemic change your office when it reopens to employees? Will you ask some people to continue working from home? Will the company purchase low-cost desk dividers from a company such as Staples or Office Depot? It may be a great time to be a provider of office furnishings after the pandemic. “Forward-thinking” companies that put open-plan layouts into action years ago now have to rethink the concept. The easy access to colleagues can be a great benefit, but a great downfall is the easy access germs have for transmission.

In addition to dividers between and in front of desks, it may make sense to put up partitions dividing the various work groups housed on each floor. Along with limiting the spread of germs, these partitions enable greater noise reduction and privacy. Think how beneficial it would be not to have the whole floor see a concerned manager lead an employee from his or her desk to a conference room to hash out an issue or have a private chat.

Something I haven’t heard anyone talk about as a germ-transmission reduction strategy is opening the windows. In the spring and fall, when it isn’t too warm or cold, opening the windows in the office, or especially in a closed-door conference room, can give germs a place to go outside the building. How open-air could your office become during the temperate times of the year? The fresh air also can be an antidote to the struggle over the office thermostat. It’s easy for “climate control” to become too hot or too cold for many.

Similarly, I wonder whether more ceiling fans will be introduced to facilitate the flow of air. It would make sense that the less stagnant the air, the less germs will linger and the more they will dissipate.

Time spent in closed-door rooms will have to be approached selectively with the number of people per room limited. In the first couple of months after we return to offices, we probably will still be vulnerable to a pandemic backslide. That means companies will have to come up with a rule limiting the number of people allowed in an in-person meeting. Fewer than five sounds like a good rule to me. When you think about it, don’t most meetings work better with fewer people anyway?

I’ve always been more of a cat and dog person, so I realize this is a touchy subject, but we also need to ask if employees’ children should be permitted in the office in the few months following office reopenings. Children are tremendous germ-propelling mechanisms even in the best of times.

Just as states and countries are being more careful about letting new people cross their borders, offices will have to think about limiting outside visitors. New people to an office means the introduction of new germs.

In the near term, offices will become less friendly, but, potentially, healthier places. And a much-preferred change of pace for us introverts.

What changes to your office workstations and floor layout will the pandemic necessitate? What other changes to your office environment will stem from this crisis?


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