Companies Re-Think Office Design to Better Protect Workers

    13 May 2020

    Company leaders are preparing to re-open offices closed to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. But they are also considering major changes to the workplace environment to keep employees safe.

    Many companies will be deploying devices aimed at recording workers' body temperatures and providing personal cleaning products when employees return. But that is just a start.

    Some businesses are considering complete office redesigns to reduce the risk of a second wave of infections. Long lines of seated work spaces may be replaced with individual employee areas surrounded by plastic and glass barriers.

    Davide Sala is the head of human resources for the Italian tire company Pirelli. As he prepares to return thousands of workers to offices across Italy, Sala is looking at how the company brought back employees in China.

    China is ahead of most of the world in lifting restrictions ordered to slow the spread of the virus. Pirelli is one of many multi-national companies able to test its return-to-work measures there.

    A thermometer, hand sanitizer and masks are pictured in the reception area at PageGroup's office after reopening, April 29, 2020.
    A thermometer, hand sanitizer and masks are pictured in the reception area at PageGroup's office after reopening, April 29, 2020.

    New measures in Italy will include temperature readings for workers, face coverings and more space between work stations. "We're going to use the China model elsewhere," Sala told the Reuters news agency. "There will be more space for staff, fewer people in rooms and the layout of the offices will have to change."

    Sala says the company is considering using some staircases as entrances or exits only, and limiting elevator use to one person per ride. Other changes could include different lunch times for workers and having people still work from home.

    But Sala said "the real break with the past" will be the redesign of offices. How extreme and permanent those changes are is not yet known. Scientists are still attempting to fully understand the virus and drug companies are working to find a vaccine.

    But plans created by some major international companies suggest a traditional eight-hour work day in a crowded building will not be continuing.

    For the world's biggest advertising company, WPP, workers will return slowly and on a voluntary basis, Chief Executive Mark Read told Reuters. "What we can say ... is that more people will be working from home in the future, and I think we can say we'll still have offices," he said.

    Almost all of WPP's 107,000 employees have been working from home since mid-March. In China, WPP slowly brought back its 7,000 workers to 50 offices over the past two months after a four-week shutdown.

    Rupert Forster is the managing director of operations in China for British-based employment agency PageGroup. He said the company has set aside one entrance at offices in China where workers line up each day for temperature tests and to collect a face covering. The company is also urging people to bring their own lunch to avoid busy shared areas and is reducing large group meetings.

    A spokesperson for British business services group Rentokil Initial said that since reopening its seven main offices in China last month, employees only work in the office four to five hours a day. The company has also redesigned seating plans to make sure there is an empty seat between each work station.

    In some cases, companies are proposing the use of plexiglass or other barriers between work stations to provide additional protection.

    But experts say for workers used to open floor plans, sanitizing office life and increasing work-from-home hours could limit the sharing of ideas and weaken company culture. Hauke Engel, with American-based management advising company McKinsey & Company, warned that such changes could limit employee creativity.

    Some companies are seeking short-term fixes to get through the next few months. But Engel noted that many companies are resistant to invest a lot of money in changes to deal with a problem that may not be long term.

    But others are preparing to make major building and office changes in an effort to create workplaces that can still operate during any future health threat.

    I'm Pete Musto.

    Stephen Jewkes, Kate Holton and Muvija M reported on this story for Reuters. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. Bryan Lynn was the editor. We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.


    Words in This Story

    tire – n. a rubber ring that usually contains air and that fits around the wheel of a car or bicycle

    staff – n. a group of people who work for an organization or business

    layout – n. the design or arrangement of something

    sanitize – v. to make something free from dirt, infection or disease by cleaning it

    creativityn. the ability to make new things or think of new ideas