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This is what the next ‘normal’ office environment might look like


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Roger Brown can’t wait to work in the office again. The 23-year-old cybersecurity analyst, who lives in Brooklyn, says it’s “detrimental for me to eat, sleep and work in an apartment the size of my mother’s walk-in closet. I’ve been trapped in here for months.”

Brown, who asked that his real name be kept confidential, says he’s not the only Gen Z worker who feels this way. “Did you know that loneliness can lead to depression?” he says.

That’s something that many employers and experts are aware of. But while white-collar and gray-collar workers are important, they are not “essential” under the current definition. In other words, they can perform their duties without physically being in the office.

Workers like Brown may be stuck in place for a while longer. At many companies and organizations, there’s no clear plan or timeline for when personnel can return or what the workplace will look like when they do.

“We’re going to look at what the government, the data, the World Health Organization, and the trends for positive tests and deaths indicate before we decide,” says Dr. Lydia Campbell, chief medical officer at IBM. She adds that “returning to work won’t be a single event.” In fact, Campbell doesn’t anticipate that everyone will be back before the end of the year.

Companies like Facebook, Google and Salesforce — all of which have a large presence in the city — have told staff that even when their offices reopen, working from home will remain an option until 2021. Square and Twitter recently announced that most of their employees can steer clear of the office “forever.”

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While that may make more affluent or suburban workers with larger

abodes and longer commutes happy, it doesn’t do much for the younger set that was drawn to office coffee bars, gourmet meals, in-house training, rooftop yoga classes, city life and elbow-rubbing opportunities with like-minded individuals.

“Shark Tank” judge and real-estate entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran doesn’t offer these folks much sympathy; in fact, she predicts that CEOs and CFOs will require more employees to permanently work from home for one reason: It will save their companies money. “Why pay the real-estate overhead?” she says.

Corcoran seems sure that companies will want to reduce the amount of expensive square footage they pay for and renegotiate their leases. “It’s not that employees won’t come into the office at all, [it’s that] they will come in when they want,” she says. “And yes, they will miss each other, but not enough to deal with rush hour.”

What working from home means to you personally creates a divide. “An ability to work from home, comfortably, creates a new type of inequity,” says Rocco Giannetti, principal and co-managing director of design, architecture and planning firm Gensler’s New York location. Working from home when home is a tiny apartment and your desk is a kitchen table, is very different than enjoying

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a sunny home office with a large external monitor, keyboard and high-speed Internet.

For those who do go back, the workplace will be different, too. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff imagines that employees will have their temperatures taken as soon as they walk in the door. Web site maker Squarespace anticipates that its staff will have to ride the elevators one at a time in its West Village headquarters.

Vertical circulation (getting up the elevator then down) “presents a challenge, and even more so because with social distancing, you can’t have crowds in the lobby waiting in line,” says Michael Chappell, principal and strategy director at Gensler. Workers will probably be required to arrive at very specific times and then be admitted into elevators via a Disney-like virtual line system.

On its recently launched Web site, commercial real-estate firm Cushman & Wakefield indicates that workplaces will include “a visually displayed unique foot traffic routing for each office to ensure employees maintain the recommended 6 feet apart for social distancing.” There will be signs on the floor and people will walk in only one direction.

Colleagues might share workspaces almost regardless of status, working in shifts to prevent overcrowding. Yet, while there’s been some talk about bringing back cubicles, Chappell doesn’t think it will happen, nor Plexiglass separators between desks. “They might make workers feel safer psychologically, but from a physical perspective, there’s not enough science to prove that’s the case,” he says.

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Since workers will come to the office for three reasons — convening, collaboration and connection — neither cubicles nor Plexiglass separations serve those needs, say experts. These things can happen in large conference rooms where workers are 6 feet apart, or in open settings with physical distancing. Workers can talk to and see each other from their desks using phone lines and headsets.

What about meals and snacks? Chappell suspects that they will be either delivered to you or placed in a central location where you can pick them up. Bathrooms, incidentally, are likely to be single-stall affairs.

Staffers will need to be tracked, as well. Software-makers like PwC, Salesforce and ServiceNow, among others, have unveiled contact-tracing applications that will identify employees who may have come in contact with individuals affected by illness, so that they can be sent home to self-quarantine.

Chappell notes that most companies are still figuring out what their workplaces will look like, and in New York City’s large, multi-tenant office buildings, landlords will also have a say.

One possible new perk: “coffee on demand” — at many companies, you won’t even have to get up to enjoy your favorite beverage.

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