ABC News Coronavirus Small Business

What offices may look like in a post-pandemic era, if they exist at all

"The new normal will be anything but normal."

In recent years, offices have been changing shape.

Largely gone were stuffy cubicles and dividers in favor of open spaces that encouraged collaboration, with coworkers in some cases sitting in long rows or around tables.

The new shared format -- exemplified by coworking spaces -- allowed more people to work together and broke down barriers.

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That's if offices even exist to the extent they once did in a post-coronavirus world.

In just a few weeks, the way most people work drastically changed as authorities around the country issued stay-at-home orders and closed everything but essential businesses to help stop the spread of COVID-19. From small firms to Fortune 500 companies, business leaders quickly moved to operate with their workforces almost entirely remote.

The very concept of the modern office -- lots of people freely flowing in an open space for hours sharing desks and other facilities -- which seemed so normal just weeks ago now appears antithetical to safety and productivity in the pandemic age.

As the massive work-from-home experiment waged on from a few weeks to a few months, some believe remote work is here to stay -- and a handful of companies including Microsoft and Zillow have suggested they will be extending their remote work policies going forward.

"It is too early to jump into any sort of conclusion as to what an office will look like in the future, perceptions are changing so fast," Sundar Nagarajan, the head of consulting at commercial real estate firm JLL, told ABC News. "If there was a recommendation we would make to our clients, it would be to reimagine, as a narrative, as to what you want your office to be and what function does it provide?"

"That way, those requirements can then be manifested as a physical space or digital space in the future," he added.

'The new normal will be anything but normal'

In the absence of a vaccine or widespread antibody testing, those returning to the office will likely see some major changes: noticeably that many fewer people will be in and those that are will have a lot more distance between them.

Marc Benioff, the CEO of software giant Salesforce, told ABC News' chief economics correspondent Rebecca Jarvis this week that he expects to gear up his 50,000 employees to get back to the office "over the next few weeks."

"We'll probably be wearing masks. We're going to be using social distancing and keeping six feet from other employees and customers," Benioff said. "Probably going to be getting our temperature taken before we come into our offices."

Benioff added that they would likely have employee contact tracing as well, saying, "we'll be using information technology so that if one of our coworkers is identified as having the virus, we're notified [of] that."

"That'll be a critical part of coming back into the workforce," he said.

Cushman & Wakefield, a global commercial real estate services firm, manages more than 800 million square feet of commercial property in China and helped spearhead efforts to return approximately million workers back to their offices over there in the last two months.

"The one thing I can tell you for sure is that the new normal will be anything but normal," the firm's CEO, Brett White, told Jarvis.

Cushman & Wakefield developed a best practices guide from their experience in China that is available on its website. The firm has also made a prototype of a "Six Feet Office" or a reimagined office space that encourages social distancing at work, and implemented a full-scale example of it in their Amsterdam offices.

"The changes we need to make to the office floor plans initially and immediately are fairly simple," White said.

Among them are desks that will be further apart. "We'll see hopefully color-coding on the floor as to where you walk and where you don't walk," White added. "We have to provide that safe six feet for every employee, not just when they're sitting at their desk, but when they're going to get a glass of water or they're walking around to the restroom and back."

"You'll have the same furniture. You'll have generally the same stations that you had before, but it's going to feel and look quite a bit different, quite a bit more open," he added.

Paul Bedborough, the CEO of the company's facilities offshoot C&W Services, has helped to develop guidelines for reopening offices with medical authorities such as the Mayo Clinic in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and emphasized that deep cleaning is one of the most important issues when it comes to returning to the office.

"Cleaning is probably the most under-talked about topic at the moment," Bedborough said.

"People could be asymptomatic and have the virus and not know it and be in a space and they may have maintained six foot from a human being, but the space that they did occupy, they could have infected and wouldn't have known it," he added. "So you have to have more than the six-foot methodology."

Asymptomatic transmission has emerged as a key factor in COVID-19's rapid spread in the United States and elsewhere. Antibody testing in major cities has suggested that many more people had the virus than were confirmed by traditional nasal or throat swabs.

Bedborough said new cleaning protocols would have to be established, and new disinfectant technologies will likely be implemented such as UV light, ionization and nano-touch coatings, which work to neutralize germs on contact.

"You’re going to see more cleaning, more cleaning employees, and the last part is what I call visible cleaning," Bedborough said. "Very much before COVID-19, cleaning was in the background when the space was not being used at night. Now you're wanting to see visible cleaning, so people cleaning while they are there. It reassures and provides confidence."

A reimagined office space 'may not require five-day occupancy'

Even if you follow the six-foot protocols for work stations, there are other communal areas in traditional offices where social distancing becomes more difficult, and some employers are beginning to reimagine what an office space should even be used for.

"You also have to look into if you have two people at a time in an elevator, how long would it take if you want to bring 100 people to the 44th floor?" Nagarajan said. "And if you're not collaborating, what is the purpose of coming to the office?"

"People are beginning to ask the 'why' question, versus two weeks ago, they were saying we need to bring people back because that's always how it's been," Nagarajan said.

The longer companies demonstrate that they're able to support remote work, the more questions are raised about the purpose of office space.

"It's becoming clear that we are not going back to what was normal as of January 2020, that is not happening," Nagarajan said. "People have to start to really think about what is the future of work, what is the future of their business, and how does the workplace support that business."

Peter Miscovich, the head of strategy and innovation at JLL, told ABC News that the "employee fear factor" needs to be addressed, citing a recent Gallup poll that said 7 out of 10 workers are fearful about returning to their workplace in the age of coronavirus.

Miscovich noted that many of their clients are taking a "very cautious approach in terms of the percentage of people who are reentering the workplace."

"These are not design decisions, these are human decisions," Miscovich said. "They are health safety decisions."

"A number of our clients are looking at longer-term work from home programs," Miscovich added. "A new ecosystem may not require five-day occupancy in the office ... especially if we have a longer, two-year COVID journey."

Nagarajan noted that "there will always be a reason why people will need to come together," but now more than ever people are starting to think about "what is the reason to come to work?"

"The goal is not to bring 100 people just because you can safely have people sit on a floor with social distancing," Nagarajan said. "The goal is to bring as few people as possible to keep their businesses ongoing, because every person that you bring that is not necessary in the office, you are adding that much of a risk to those who are absolutely necessary in the office."

"The question is who needs to come, rather than how many can come," he added.

According to Miscovich, COVID-19 is helping shape the next phase of the modern office.

"We saw the cube farms of the late 80s and 90s evolve to open landscape and benching and a lot of the open plans that we see, and I think we’ll see the next evolution of that," Miscovich said. "There is this evolutionary nature to the workplace that will continue and COVID-19 will be an accelerator and an influencer."

"If the office becomes mostly experiential and for collaboration and you go to that two times a week versus five times a week, it takes on a very different context as a meeting place as a social place," he said.

Jonathan Wasserstrum, the founder and CEO of Squarefoot, a commercial real estate and office space firm, told ABC News that he still believes there will still be a demand for offices, though this pandemic will likely change how long people are willing to commit to their lease terms.

"I’m bullish on the future of remote work, I’m bearish on the overall future it will have on office space demand," Wasserstrum said.

Wasserstrum added that most employees will still want to go to the office at least some of the time, and when they do, are "not going to want to share desks."

"The cost of everyone having their own desk is lower than the morale hit of you and me having to share a desk," he said.

He said he predicts the "big change" we will see is that most companies will want more flexible lease terms.

"People talk about the kids of the depression, something like jolts them and they just are never the same," he said. "I think you’ll have some people who go back to their offices six months from now and say 'why am I locked into this five-year lease?' What the last six months show me is that stuff is unpredictable and uncertain, so why would I sign a five-year lease."

What to know about coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map