The End of Open Office Space?

May 5, 2020

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic is making employers reconsider office layouts. Open-layout workspaces may be prime targets for retrofits, and that could prompt more firms to bring back cubicles.

“While many organizations prepared for employee safety in other ways, the workplace was not designed to mitigate the spread of disease,” according to Steelcase, a furniture maker, in a newly published brochure, “The Post-COVID Workplace.”

Over the last decade, many firms have taken the approach to try to get as many workers into a small space as affordably as possible. An open layout without private spaces was one way to do that.

But now with a pandemic in place, businesses are reconsidering the lack of walls.

“I think office space is going to change, [and] we will go back to putting shields between people,” Carol Bartz, CEO of Autodesk, told MarketWatch. “I think people are going to want protection.”

Some businesses view the resurgence of the cubicle on the horizon. Wired announced recently: “The cubicle is making a comeback. One of the most important innovations (to reduce transmission) may turn out to be cardboard or plastic dividers that turn open-plan offices into something more reminiscent of the 1980s.”

But some question whether a cubicle wall will prove barrier enough to fight COVID-19. “The cubicle wall is not going to be a perfect barrier,” Peter Raynor, professor at the University of Minnesota’s Division of Environmental Health Sciences and director of the university’s industrial hygiene program, told Forbes.com. “It’s going to prevent those larger droplets from passing within six feet of the person in the next cubicle. From that standpoint, they’re good. Probably for the smaller aerosol droplets, the cubicle walls aren’t going to be much of a barrier. They don’t settle very fast, and they can remain airborne for long periods.”

Many businesses are weighing what would be the best options to help spread the virus in their workplace, but offices with doors and walls are noticeably absent in the discussions. Air circulation likely will be another important consideration for offices moving forward, experts say.

“Generally, if you have more HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning], you’re going to tend to dilute the virus so there’s less of it to breathe on any given inhalation if it’s present in the first place,” Raynor told Forbes.com. He notes that a higher proportion of air from outside along with higher levels of filtration of recirculated air could make transmission of the virus less likely.

“Planning paradigms of the past were driven by density and cost,” the Steelcase COVID-19 brochure notes. “Going forward, they need to be based on the ability to adapt easily to possible economic, climate, and health disruptions. The reinvented office must be designed with an even deeper commitment to the well-being of people, recognizing that their physical, cognitive, and emotional states are inherently linked to their safety.”