Communal tables, shared espresso machines, open floor plans and tiny huddle rooms are the amenities that for years have defined many modern tech offices.
When workers return in the coronavirus era, the new hallmarks could be hand sanitizer, touch-free garbage cans and even Plexiglass barriers between workspaces.
“There’s going to be a lot of evolution of doing similar things but in a more physically distant way, in a more individually packaged way,” said Katie Drucker from Seattle-based Madrona Ventures, who has been working on building a “Back to Work” toolkit for companies. “I don’t think it means the end of ever being in an office.”
The coronavirus pandemic is poised to forever change the layout of American offices.
As President Donald Trump and governors across the country weigh plans to reopen the economy, tech companies across the country are scrambling to overhaul their offices. It is likely to result in a huge culture change for an industry that pioneered the open floor plans that have come to define many corporate offices today.
Qumulo, a Seattle-based start-up, plans to space its workstations more than six feet apart in all directions and reconfigure all its conference rooms to let employees maximize distance from each other. Robyn Singh, its vice president of people, says the company is considering many different scenarios, including taking offline popular perks such as the office espresso machine and panini press — at least initially. The company is also thinking about ways to cut down on employees using commonly-touched surfaces, such as door handles.
“The safety of our people, of any visitors or customers who come into the office, is our top priority,” Singh said. “Whatever we need to be implementing to maintain that within our offices, we will.”
The company is also starting to think about how to supply new essential items for the office, such as hand sanitizer, wipes and masks for employees.
They are taking cues from their experiences dealing with other outbreaks, such as SARS in Asia, to develop their game plan for returning to work. And major tech companies with operations that have already restarted in Asia during the coronavirus crisis can incorporate those lessons from easing stay-at-home orders, too.
Intel, for instance, recently published a plan to return employees to work in phases after local authorities lift stay-at-home orders and see cases in the surrounding communities start to decline. Intel has a mix of different floor plans, with cubicles in some locations and open floor plans in others. The company is working through reconfiguring any work areas where people would be in close contact.
The tool kit of resources for companies trying to plan how they’ll bring back workers from Madrona Ventures covers everything from how to instruct employees to clean down their work stations to technologies that could help monitor whether people are maintaining social distance. The kit also includes checklists for reconfiguring office space to ensure people can remain at least six feet apart. The recommendations are partially based on the findings of larger corporations in the Seattle area.
Drucker, the firm’s head of business development and partnerships, said it’s a starting point for companies that feel overwhelmed by all the changes they need to make.
“It is meant to be walking a mile in the shoes of a business owner — these are the things you need to think about,” she said.
Despite the emerging state guidelines for reopening, companies are making their own decisions. And tech workers may come back on slower timelines than many other businesses because so much of their work can be done remotely.
Most Facebook employees will be allowed to continue to work from home through the remainder of 2020, according to CNBC’s Salvador Rodriguez. However the Menlo Park, Calif., company will begin to open most of its offices on July 6.
Microsoft has said that it would allow most employees to have the option to work remotely through October, unless employees are in an essential role or authorities mandate otherwise, GeekWire reports. Amazon has said workers who work remotely can continue to do so until at least Oct. 2.
Other tech companies say they are closely watching the actions of government officials in locations where they have offices.