Bill Halter

ATLANTA—When workers began returning to their offices after weeks and perhaps months of sheltering in place, what will the environment be like? Certainly, the coronavirus era is likely to bring change to the workplace.

Bill Halter, principal at Atlanta architecture firm Cooper Carry, offered some speculation in an interview with Halter heads the firm’s Office Workplace studio.

“There will be a much higher level of cleanliness in the workplace,” Halter says. “There are a number of areas that are hot spots, ranging from kitchen areas to restrooms and anywhere numbers of people interact. There will be new protocols to keep those areas clean. A lot of behaviors will change with respect to cleanliness.”

Another issue will be how to navigate areas that require touching such as the buttons, handles and controls that people touch on a daily basis.

“It really starts at the elevator controls when you arrive at the office,” Halter says. “A lot of that will be scrutinized. Another thing that will have implications is physical distancing and how do we keep people away from one another. That’s going to be challenging. I think we can begin to separate ourselves by removing every other desk or not seating people at every desk. The days of desk hoteling are gone. Sharing a desk is not something we want to do. There will be protocols for entering conference rooms. People will be cleaning their hands almost like entering an operating room.”

Halter says there will be debates about who works in the office. The remote working experience that many people have had in March and April has been a learning experience.

“We will be polling our own firm shortly and see where remote working has worked and where it hasn’t worked. We may decide it’s not a bad way to work for some people. Maybe it’s not necessary for everyone to come in to work every day, but maybe three or four days a week.”

In some cases, people will need to work together for efficiency. Ways will be figured for fewer people to work in the office at the same time. Space requirements might not decrease, but there will be new space arrangements to allow social distancing. There might be split shifts, Halter says.

“We’ve been speculating there may be a trend toward more closed environments, closed offices and workspaces. Offices have been adding people and space has been getting more compressed over the years. That model may change with space spread out in a different way, but I’m not quite sure how that will look.”

Halter says since no one understands the virus well enough to know what’s safe, there will be an interim period with new protocols as everyone figures out how to manage offices. These protocols may or may not be permanent.

Other changes might be elimination of office restroom doors, replacing them with a kind of vestibule similar to airports and stadiums. There will be better filtration systems. Automated doors may be prevalent in some areas.

“We are all champing at the bit to get back to some new level of normal,” Halter says. “Gradually we will get to a new normal and when we reach that point there will be some changes in the way we work, but it’s hard to tell how extensive it will be at this stage.”