What will it be like when we go back to the office?

The Great Reboot

What will it be like when we go back to the office?

Some people are sick of working from home, but the office they remember is very different from the one they will return to.

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, what will a pandemic sabbatical do to your feelings about the office? You may miss the way you set up your cubicle, recall fondly the water cooler conversations, or can’t wait to use the office printer again. But for as long as COVID-19 remains a threat, and possibly even after most people are vaccinated, office life will be very different from what it was before the global pandemic.

To understand what that might feel like, we spoke to some experts on work and workspaces who predicted that social distancing measures and hybrid work models are here to stay. Walk through our simulations below to experience what going back to the old/new office might be like. Make sure to avoid contact with others along the way!

Task 1

Navigate the new space

Your company is launching a hybrid work model where you work from home on some days and from the office on others. It’s time to go in. On arrival, you find some desks have been blocked off to keep employees at least six feet apart, and you can no longer sit where you once did. Go to your desk and collect your things. Pick up some supplies and other goodies along the way.

How was navigating the space? Though returning may feel like a big unknown, Tracy Brower, a principal at the furniture company Steelcase with a PhD in the sociology of work, said people are surprisingly adaptable. A positive attitude can also help with the transition, she said.

On your first day back, you may find yourself waving excitedly at a colleague whose first name you don’t even know.

“Like a romantic movie, we may recognize someone from across the room who we have a tertiary relationship with and we’re going to be so relieved to see them again.”

Tracy Brower, sociologist and principal with the Applied Research + Consulting group at Steelcase

Where did you sit? You may be more comfortable working in an open part of the office, while others may feel safer sitting near friends. Either way, a multitude of small decisions on top of learning to do old things in new ways can be fatiguing, experts said. At the end of the day, you and your colleagues may be a bit cranky.

To alleviate some of that cognitive dissonance, companies will need to communicate how the environment has changed, and be clear about new policies. “It is all about what the building is doing that provides a level of confidence,” said Doug Stewart, head of digital buildings for Cushman & Wakefield.

Task 2

Find a friend!

You can finally pick up a stack of books from a colleague who has been saving them for you. Keep an eye out for signage on the floor to help you find your way. Navigate from your desk and collect the books.

If you used to walk a straight line from point A to B, that will no longer be possible. In addition to changing seat configurations to meet health department standards, companies will be creating one-way or two-way lanes to reduce congestion and unintended encounters, experts said.

The architects at SmithGroup had to find new strategies quickly to ensure the safety of their offices, which ranged from small workspaces to multiple floors. They started by forming a set of rules; seating people back-to-back or kitty corner rather than facing each other, and, where possible, chairs should face away from traffic.

To implement those changes across the firm’s 15 locations in the United States and Shanghai, Leland Curtis, one of the leads in the computational design practice, and Bob Varga, a principal in the Detroit office, built a tool that combined an architecture design program with an algorithm that combed through the floor plans to tag which desks to remove. They ran that against all their layouts.

To control traffic flow, they added off-ramps for passageways so that people could avoid running into each other, and designated additional pathways for movement so workers had options and wouldn’t feel trapped.

However, Browers, the Steelcase expert, cautioned against overwhelming employees by giving them too many options. She said that having fewer choices can actually help workers feel more in control as they get used to the new terrain.

Task 3

Sort out a private space

Your partner texts and asks you to call home. Your office has an open plan, so take a break and find a private space where you can make a personal call and not disturb your colleagues.

Was it easy to find privacy? When you ducked into a room, did you check to see when it was last occupied? Reservation systems will help you figure out if the space was recently used or cleaned, and stop you from entering if the space is unsafe. After a big meeting, you’ll want an enclosed conference room to be empty long enough for fresh air to recirculate. Some buildings will be retrofitting HVAC systems, or requiring windows to remain open, to improve ventilation.

If your company uses sensors for monitoring occupancy, those can be adapted for conference rooms, desk booking or to indicate when bathrooms are at capacity. Alex Birch, the CEO of XY Sense, a startup that makes sensors used by companies in Australia and New Zealand, said that their monitors can produce heat maps to show employee traffic patterns. Those maps are particularly useful for cleaning staff to target areas to disinfect.

Birch can also look at data on where people cluster and linger in a room. He found that the most common social distancing transgressions happen in kitchens and at the end of meetings when people stand up and walk over to shake hands.

“What we saw is that the end of meetings is problematic. People walk out together and have a close conversation.”

Alex Birch, CEO of XYSense

In truth, some workers will find it more difficult than others to adapt to new ways of behaving in the office. To help with the transition, companies may appoint a social distance advisor, experts said. When a coworker who doesn’t quite grasp the concept of personal space shows up and sits on your desk, for instance, the advisor can save you from having to have an uncomfortable conversation.

On days when you’re working from home and the cat walks across your keyboard? You’ll have to figure out how to deal with that on your own.

Editing by Tiffany Wu and Matthew Weber