DID CORONAVIRUS KILL THE OPEN OFFICE?

By Larry Lubka

This isn’t really a construction law article, but it could impact the design and construction of tenant improvements.  Now that people are considering the logistics of returning to work, we have to think about where we are returning to if you have what is referred to as an open or shared office.  Whether or not you believe open office design is an advance to the workplace, coronavirus may kill it, at least in the short term. 

 I wrote the first draft of this a couple of days ago.  Yesterday, an article in the Wall Street Journal confirmed some of my thoughts in their article “Virus Puts Shared Office Space in Doubt”.

The rules of engagement for the coronavirus appear to be testing, masks and six feet of separation.  While everyone loves to talk about masks, few places actually sell them.  Cloth masks are “helpful” but true protection is best provided by N95 masks, which we need to save for medical personnel in the foreseeable future.  Working at a shared table is not the environment many will feel comfortable with until there is a vaccine used by everyone.  Once there is a vaccine actually available to everyone and used by everyone, these issues may be mooted.

While a cloth mask may give one a feeling of protection in a supermarket where floor tape separates grocery carts and one-way aisles keep you separated from others, how would that work in an open office?  The open office is all about sharing, not separation.

Testing might be important, but in an open office you often have a conglomeration of many small companies, often staffed with young people who, reportedly, often catch the illness without showing symptoms.  Shifting the burden to small companies to perform tests, even if that is legally allowable, is problematic.  Regardless, access to fast result tests and testing equipment is not happening in the near future.

So, what is the solution?  Cubicles?  One might consider installing cubicles in place of couches and then extend plastic sheeting from the top of the cubicle to the ceiling.  One could also consider private offices, with doors that close.  The future of offices may be the past.

As to testing and masks, the operator of the open office should consider checking everyone’s temperature and providing masks to everyone in the office, since the tenants may not be reliable in doing so.  Even then, what is the liability risk to a company supplying masks that are of no help at all (although it is still unclear if they help at all).

On the other hand, you might want to first see how many people stop working from home in preference to returning to their open office.  Working from home most of the time could be the safest approach of all for the next several months. 

The world is being turned on its head.  We still have more questions than answers.

Laurence P. Lubka
Lubka & White LLP
Tel: (626) 301-0700
Email: larry@lubkawhite.com

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