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What Should Offices Look Like In The Time Of COVID-19?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As states loosen stay-at-home orders, millions of people are heading back to their offices for the first time in months, or at least they will be heading there soon. But you can forget about crowded meetings around a conference table or the shared coffee pot. Office life as you once knew it is getting a major overhaul. Here to talk more about that is Nabil Sabet. He's an architect at M Moser Associates, which specializes in workplace design.

Welcome.

NABIL SABET: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: All right. So as people go back into the office, tell us what you think is going to be different about the look, the shape of these workspaces.

SABET: Well, really, you know, life moving forward will be very different. We have experienced over the last little while a tremendous change in the way we work. And there's this - now there's this dual frontier where we work both from home and in the office space at the same time. So...

CHANG: Right.

SABET: ...Moving back, I think 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.

CHANG: God, it seems like so much to think about at once. I mean, what about common areas in the office, like meeting rooms or kitchenettes? How are offices going to manage those areas, you think?

SABET: Well, those areas in the interim are going to be largely decommissioned or used at the 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...

CHANG: Yeah.

SABET: ...Able to do their job properly and even making sure that 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 as things clear up and more information is gathered.

CHANG: I'm curious. You know, the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, told his employees this week that they never have to come back to work in person. And I'm guessing there are a lot of people out there who have now gotten used to working at home and are wondering, why even go into the office at all? So do you think that we are going to see more working from home from now on after all of this?

SABET: Well, it's really fascinating. I think what he's done is he's really shown how progressive the company is, how they are really trying to align with the human needs of the employee population. And the need for the office is still going to stay there. There's a human and intrinsic need for us to connect.

CHANG: Yes.

SABET: In the last eight weeks, we've all felt it.

CHANG: Absolutely.

SABET: And we all miss our friends, and we miss our...

CHANG: I yearn to see my colleagues again.

SABET: Exactly. Exactly. And so this is the human need that's part of us. We need to bring that, obviously, back at some - in some form in the near future. But moving forward, this working from home and working in the office are both going to be part of the office construct. And so what we are doing now is we're planning for light companies to look at how office space will be strategized and how it's going to focus on those very important and refined needs of getting together, working together, collaborating cross-function, things that we just can't do independently in our homes or remotely.

CHANG: Yeah. I want to talk about sort of, like, the structural changes that you will see in office spaces, like - 'cause you design offices for a living. Are there any bigger-picture, like, long-term changes employers might make - say, just getting rid of the open-plan workspace altogether?

SABET: 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. So I think this is definitely going to be a focus for the future. 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...

CHANG: Right.

SABET: ...My work life.

CHANG: Nabil Sabet is an architect at the design firm M Moser Associates.

Thank you very much for talking to us today.

SABET: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.