How some companies are making work-spaces safer in preparation for more staff returning to the office.

Countless office towers, offices, boardrooms and cubicles have been sitting empty throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. As people cautiously negotiate heading back to the office over the coming months, they’re likely to see a lot of changes.
“The central issue is there’s a push and a pull between an employer and an employee,” says Robert Palter, senior partner at consulting management firm McKinsey & Company.
Walking through their modern Toronto offices, the communal spaces with couches that used to be for social gathering and the eating areas for sharing a meal all remain closed. A corporate museum to the way the workplace used to be.
Nearly three-quarters of the 3.4 million Canadians
who began working from home in March continued to do so in August, according to Statistics Canada.
“If you look at the amount that has been written and talked about in this work-from-home experiment, there’s equal amounts written on the diametrically opposed ends of this debate,” Palter says.
One side is in favour of working from home, and the flexibility it affords. The other is saying the office is a fundamental place of work, essential for creative collaboration and staff development.
Working from home has been tried on various scales in the past
, albeit never under today’s circumstances, but few companies have adopted it permanently. In fact, Yahoo, IBM and other companies have banned working from home in the past several years, citing the benefits of in-person collaboration.
“Amazon is actually buying office space because they want people to work in offices,” says Palter.
At the same time, he points to examples such as Facebook, which says remote work has been turning out to be OK. The social media giant says it plans to continue with this model for the foreseeable future.
There are lots of arguments for and against remote work arrangements, but for those companies that want people back in their regular offices, how do they make their workspaces safe during a pandemic?
Samantha Sannella, managing director of strategic planning at global commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, says that although there are no hard numbers yet, anecdotally she is hearing that in downtown Toronto, just two to 10 per cent of the office workforce has returned so far. However, that number is expected to rise as schools re-open and parents don’t need to stay home to take care of their children, so workplaces are taking measures to be able to accommodate more staff safely.
“We met with several engineers just to look at how the [virus] droplets could be spread,” explains Sannella, describing the steps her firm is taking.
“We had to quickly pivot to doing a lot of research in understanding how the virus is spread, and putting together a list of physical interventions and behavioural protocols combined to produce a risk mitigation strategy.”
That means things like arrows directing the flow of traffic within the office, a clean desk policy, and no standing desks to avoid droplets being spread.
Besides the flow of people around offices, there are issues such as workplace airflow. The pandemic has pushed engineers to look beyond the design of a building’s traditional ventilation and HVAC.
“We advise a lot of landlords and developers. And one thing that we’re advising on now is perhaps you should consider operable windows,” explains Sannella.
“We’re going to see the innovation out of that, and innovation from engineers on how to manage the airflow in a building that has operable windows. We’ll see that continue in the future.”
Physically changing the traditional workplace can only go so far, however. The biggest changes, particularly in the short term, will likely be behavioural  trying to make the office a pleasant, if sterile, place to go and encouraging innovation and collaboration.
The old office setting allowed employees to get noticed, build social capital, network with other staff, and climb the corporate ladder  something Cushman & Wakefield is trying to address.
“We know people are struggling away from the office, they’re feeling disconnected from their employees, from their colleagues,” says Catherine Tourigny, workplace strategist at Cushman & Wakefield.
“And in the future we’re going to create spaces that bring people together safely so that they can collaborate and share ideas.”
That means an emphasis on office collaboration areas that will still encourage physical distancing, and which may blend in elements of virtual collaboration to keep groups small.
Nearly half a year after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Canadians are still working from home, which has changed the demand for housing and could spark a drop in the need for commercial space.2:34
Then there is the issue of making sure everyone follows the rules.
At Cushman & Wakefield, they’ve adopted the concept of “change champions,” employees who will report on co-workers disobeying the rules. So far the company says several complaints have been lodged about people’s behaviour in the workplace.
As a return to the office is slowly phased in, Sannella says building trust between employers and employees is vital.
A recent survey by KPMG
found 82 per cent of people said they trust their employer to take all necessary precautions, but 60 per cent said they will refuse to go into their offices if they don’t feel safe.
That means conversations around sick days, work spaces, office rules and expectations will likely have to be an ongoing process, as the conditions of the pandemic change.
“I think every company is going to have their own policy, but if they’re going to keep people engaged and productive they are going to have to think about these things,” Palter says.