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No More Watercooler Talk And Other Ways Offices Will Adapt To The Pandemic

The human need to connect means offices will likely survive the pandemic, but in an altered state.
Shannon Fagan
Getty Images
The human need to connect means offices will likely survive the pandemic, but in an altered state.

As stay-at-home orders across the U.S. begin to loosen, companies are planning for their employees' return to the office. For months, millions worked from home, raising the question of whether physical offices are even necessary.

Nabil Sabet thinks so. The group director at M Moser Associates, a firm that specializes in workplace design, says there is more to the office than just cubicles and conference rooms.

"There's a human and intrinsic need for us to connect. In the last eight weeks, we've all felt it. We all miss our friends," he tells NPR's Ailsa Chang on All Things Considered. "This is the human need that's part of us. We need to bring that, obviously, back in some form in the near future."

But going forward, offices will look and feel different, Sabet says, transformed by the coronavirus health emergency.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

As people go back into the office, tell us what you think is going to be different.

In the short term, there'll be several measures that are taken to include everyone's safety — things like physical distancing still being maintained in the office, shifting from having everyone there at once to possibly having shifts or teams coming one at a time. And then even looking at adjustments to the physical space — air conditioning, the way we come in, the flow through the space — all these measures that can be taken very quickly to make the space safe.

What about common areas in the office, like meeting rooms or kitchenettes? How are offices going to manage those areas?

Those areas in the interim are going to be largely decommissioned or used at their lowest possible functional abilities. So things like meeting rooms, really limiting the number of people in those rooms, adding things like purification and sterilization in the space to make sure that people in the space are safe and able to do their job properly. ... Things like pantries and kitchenettes that, at one point, had lots of food coming in, heating up and eating in the open — these functions will likely be stopped for the interim and then slowly be added on.

Are there any bigger-picture, long-term changes employers might make?

I definitely think the open-plan workspace needs to be reconsidered. It's a conversation that actually started before COVID-19 and looking at how effective are those spaces for the different behaviors and needs of people in the office space. ... There are some conversations about, will the future be full of cubicles or in closed rooms? But I think it's important to remember that the purpose of the office is very clear now. The purpose of us getting out of our house, taking public transit, taking that risk really needs to be that the office space is going to provide something that will enhance my work life.

Listen to the full interview at the audio link above.

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Maureen Pao is an editor, producer and reporter on NPR's Digital News team. In her current role, she is lead digital editor and producer for All Things Considered. Her primary responsibility is coordinating, producing and editing high-impact online components for complex, multipart show projects and host field reporting.