WRAL Investigates

Post-pandemic offices will likely feature fewer workers, more protections

Posted December 7, 2020 5:50 p.m. EST
Updated December 7, 2020 7:40 p.m. EST

— Office buildings across the region are still fairly empty, with many people working from home during the pandemic. But some experts say work may never be the same even after the pandemic is over.

"The notion of going five days a week, 40 hours may shift," said Brooks Raiford, president and chief executive of the NC Tech Association, a network of more than 650 large and small business statewide.

One of the biggest long-term impacts of the pandemic will be more companies realizing a larger portion of the workforce can avoid the office, Raiford said.

"They certainly can continue to have work-from-home, if not the dominant, at least a significant part their plan," he said. "Maybe having segments of your workforce rotate in and out and on any given day, you won’t have everyone back."

In addition to how many people are in the office, the way offices look will also change, he said.

"The idea has been pack people in, have hoteling, open space, cubicles and so forth. So, that will shift is what we’re hearing, because there will be more space needed per person," he said.

But it will be months, if ever, for companies to operate like they did before the virus.

"Attempting to return to things as they were March 1 of this year is pretty much a fool’s errand," said Brian Collins, the managing director and security chief at BDO, an international tax, accounting and business consulting firm.

Collins agrees with Raiford that businesses will shift to pods of workers in the future.

"More and more people will be moving towards a hybrid model of work so, whereas on any given day, we may indeed see fewer people at the office space," he said.

BDO keeps track of clients worldwide and hears about the expected office environment.

"We’re going to see work spaces, for example, that are blocked off. We’re going to have people walking around our offices with masks. We’re going to see a lot more hand sanitizer around," Collins said.

The question for many businesses is when that will happen.

Among major North Carolina employers, Cigna workers could return April 1, at the earliest. Red Hat, Cisco and Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina aren’t expecting more workers back until July. SAS Institute hasn't yet set a goal for bringing workers back.

NC Tech Association polls during the pandemic show working from home may be here to stay. In March, half of companies thought work from home would continue after the pandemic. By June, that number jumped to 77 percent.

But Collins and Raiford point out that working with people, especially on teams, is more effective than virtual meetings. That means in-office collaboration and work travel will return but probably with less frequency.

"You just can’t make up for interpersonal interaction, and when you have none of that and everything’s remote, we’re hearing that’s not desirable either," Raiford said, adding that flexibility will be key.

"Movable walls, the ability to create larger and smaller work spaces, temporary rooms to accommodate a task force or a working group" will be needed, he said.

The latest NC Tech Association survey shows that more than half of the companies are still hiring, and most said they have no plans to reduce their office space footprint even if more workers stay remote.

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