Someday we’ll return to the office. It’ll be nothing like we’ve seen before


When you finally head back to the office, it won’t be like you remember it.

Physical distancing, from the garage to the elevator to the break room, promises to help make the pending mass return to the workplace both reassuring and maddening as people learn to work together again while remaining six feet apart.

Signs of separation will abound: decals on elevator floors showing you where to stand, arrows to route foot traffic in one direction, chairs removed from conference rooms and other popular gathering places.

Expect fabric couches and other upholstered furniture to be wrapped in plastic — just like at Grandma’s house — for easier disinfection. Shared work tools such as conference phones and whiteboard pens may disappear. That remote control for the lunchroom television? Don’t bother hunting for it.

Only a few states have eased shelter-in-place restrictions enough to allow widespread return to office buildings, but many landlords are planning for the comeback that they hope will be gradual. If everyone surged in as though it was a day before COVID-19, the planned systems to keep people safely apart might be overwhelmed.

Not that most workers are in a hurry to return to the offices that not long ago seemed as familiar as home, said Lenny Beaudoin of CBRE, who oversees back-to-work issues for the international real estate services company.

“We see right now that people are setting a pretty high bar around their own personal criteria for going back to work,” he said. Every aspect of office life will be scrutinized: getting there safely on public transportation, making it through the lobby, navigating once-mundane routines such as going to the restroom.

“How do I get a cup of coffee?” Beaudoin said, recalling pre-pandemic crowding around a communal pot. “Nobody is going back to work without coffee.”

People need to expect that the office will be a very different place for the foreseeable future.

“We all have habits for how we work in an office,” he said, “and those habits are going to have to change until there is a vaccine or permanent remedy.”

Adapting to new habits will be jarring, Beaudoin predicted, but workers will shift as they did after Sept. 11 when heightened security procedures that slowed entry went from annoying to normal. Dealing with inconveniences and delays brought on by coronavirus safety measures will also become a habit, he said.