How the post COVID-19 workplace will be different
Until recently, the offices of Fishman Public Relations featured open floor plans, with desks lined in rows and employees working elbow to elbow on laptops.
The firm required workers to commute daily to either its Northbrook or Chicago River North offices to promote face-to-face collaboration.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, Fishman's workplace practices were upended.
The work-from-the-office rule was abandoned in mid-March, when Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered all nonessential businesses to close, and, when possible, for employees to work from home.
Now nearly two months later, as Fishman prepares for the day when workers can return to the office, the open floor plans and the close collaboration must be modified to adhere to new social distancing guidelines.
"It has been a game changer for us," said Debra Vilchis, Fishman's chief operating officer.
Welcome to the new normal, where existing workplace customs are being disrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak and being replaced by modified practices.
Companies once reluctant to allow employees to work from home are often finding that their workers remain productive, and the business enterprise continues to survive.
Experiencing success with this forced experiment, some businesses will likely allow employees to continue to work from home in some capacity, said Matt Mead, chief technology officer at SPR, a Chicago-based technology consulting firm.
"Organizations will be more open to a remote workforce," Mead said. "The sudden shift we all made to working off site has helped us get over the cultural bias that a human needs to be in the office banging away on a keyboard in order to be productive and valuable."
Indeed, a recent MIT study showed that 34% of people who previously commuted to work were working from home as of the first week of April. That's a huge leap from the 4% of the workforce that worked from home prior to the pandemic. MIT predicts that some of the uptick may hold.
"Once businesses and individuals invest in the fixed costs of remote work, they may decide to stay with the new methods," the MIT study states.
As sheltering restrictions ease, many companies are expected to evolve to a combination of employees rotating days working home and in the office, alternating shifts to reduce crowd sizes.
The popular practice of people working on laptops on long rows of desks -- called "benching," "hot-desking" or "hoveling" -- may be put on hold.
And there will be guidelines in place for social distancing and sanitation, new seating arrangements and floor plans, and new equipment and materials installed, all with the aim of stopping the spread of germs.
A longer-term impact might be businesses reassessing their office space needs, reducing expenses by leasing smaller offices and allowing more employees to work from home, Mead said.
"Companies will ask the question, 'Is it worth paying high rents for office space when people can work from home?' Rather than one big office space, they may split up the workforce into a combination of smaller office spaces and working from home," Mead said.
Businesses that have been forced to make layoffs or furlough workers in response to a virus-induced economic downturn already are looking to reduce their office footprint.
Groupon, for example, recently said it wants to reduce its Chicago headquarters office space after laying off or furloughing 2,800 employees. The online deals company is seeking to sublease 150,000 square feet of space.
Work from home practices, social distancing and sanitation protocols, and future office space needs are all issues have been considered by executives at Fishman Public Relations in recent weeks.
Two years ago, Fishman redesigned its Northbrook headquarters to create an open floor plan. Cubicles were removed and employees worked side by side at long rows of desks and in cozy conference rooms.
Fishman required its 47 employees to come to the office each day, thinking that the close-knit environment would spark creativity, innovation and teamwork, Vilchis said.
"We went to benching. We got everyone laptops. Everyone could move around to different spaces. The idea was that if we were together, we would be more collaborative," Vilchis said.
When workers made the sudden switch in late March to working from home, Vilchis quickly discovered that there was no change in productivity, communication or quality of the work.
"We were blown away," she said. "The wonderful surprise was that our business was not disrupted. Our staff just kept going. The results were the same, if not better."
Vilchis set up an office in her Wheeling home, using a bedroom once occupied by her now adult daughter. She had to remove a Bob Marley poster from the wall because it was showing up in the background of her Zoom conferences. She's adjusted to hearing her husband in a nearby room, and to her teenage son complaining that he's being awakened by her morning conference calls.
But it's those small nuances of working from home which Vilchis has come to appreciate. Teleconferencing allows her to get a peek inside the homes of her colleagues, to see their children scurrying in the background, and their pets jumping on their laps.
"Suddenly, people seem more human to you. You get a glimpse inside their lives. It's given me a new view of my relationships with co-workers and clients," Vilchis said.
As Fishman's chief operating officer, Vilchis is now thinking about an eventual return to the office, and how workplace practices will be different. She's thinking about rotating employees in shifts, with some working from home on certain days while others are in the office.
She's thinking about seating arrangements to maintain 6-foot distancing. She's trying to think about how many staff members can be in a conference room at once. And she's thinking about how to sanitize the office, and whether employees should wear face masks and gloves.
"We need to figure out how to have safe practices while also figuring out how to have that collaborative culture we had before," Vilchis said.
To help businesses better prepare for the eventual return to the office, Cushman & Wakefield, the Chicago-based real estate firm, has launched a new program called, Six Feet Office, which offers advice on office designs and protocols.
On the firm's Six Feet Office site, a video simulates a worker entering an office and picking up a disposable pad to cover the surface of his desk. His previously open-space desk now has a protective plastic barrier to separate him from fellow workers. And markings on the floor help him maintain a safe distance from others as he walks through the office.
"The virus will dictate when we can eventually return to places of work and commerce, but the time to prepare is now," said John Forrester, Cushman & Wakefield's president.
Collaborative workspaces, breakout rooms, lounges and game rooms may revert to cubicles and corner offices, said Tom Johnstone, sales manager and co-owner of Key Interiors, an office design and furnishing company based in Lombard.
"The open space office concept may be just about dead," Johnstone said.
The open office space concept was on full display in February when DataCubes opened a new office in Schaumburg. The firm, which designs insurance underwriting software, had 13,000-square-feet of new space that included side-by-side workspaces, a lounge with pool and Ping-Pong tables, a fully-stocked kitchen, and access to a gymnasium and delicatessen.
"We were just beginning to plan events to invite employees and clients to celebrate our opening, when we had to shut down. It was kind of a downer," said Rick Syens, director of human resources.
Fortunately, DataCubes already had a flexible policy which allowed its 53 employees to work remotely or in the office, so the switch to exclusively work from home was smooth, Syens said.
The company has been able to conduct business with clients and co-workers using Microsoft Teams teleconferencing. DataCubes requires all employees to be "cameras on" at all times during conferencing, which leads to some interesting situations, Syens said.
"All the experiences of pets and children in the background. People talking when they think they're on mute. You see that every day, and it lightens things up for everyone," Syens said.
As DataCubes ponders its return to the office, Syens is starting to think about sanitation and social distancing plans. He envisions limiting the number of employees in the office at first, alternating workers and continuing to utilize teleconferencing.
"The way we work for the foreseeable future, not just the next month or two, but maybe from now on, will be different. But we'll adapt," Syens said.
And while DataCubes has experienced a successful transition to remote work during the COVID-19 crisis, Syens and his colleagues are eager to reunited in the office.
"It's been an adventure, an adjustment for all of us," Syens said. "It was fun, neat and cool when it started, but I think we're done. We want to get back to the social aspect of the office. We want to get back to normalcy."