I recently wrote a blog on how the courts are reorganizing their procedures in preparation for reopening after the pandemic. Now it’s time to tackle our personal workspace.

This topic is close to home because, like most small business owners, I am tackling this exact question in my office. How are we going to go back to work while maintaining proper distance and safety?

Some things are obvious, like no more shared desks or cubicles. And no more handshakes. But what about the water cooler? The coffee machine?

Designs

Many designers are now moving towards closed office designs after years of designing open, collaborative spaces, and they are looking for ways to create contactless working experiences. For example, the Bee’ah Office Building in Sharjah was designed with elevators you call with your smartphone and office doors that open automatically with facial recognition.

Other designers are calling for more ventilation in office spaces, which could be a problem for the average building with sealed windows.

Could this also be the death of co-working spaces? We have seen a huge boost to co-working over the last few years. Big players like WeWork and Industrious have been expanding rapidly. Regus has been around forever, and I have a number of colleagues who have used their offices over the years. This setup is likely gone in the wake of new requirements.

Personnel

Having a receptionist for many law firms seemed like an absolute necessity, but I imagine that firms will be reluctant to bring another person into the office when the job can be effectively outsourced to companies like Ruby.

In fact, I read that there may be laws restricting the number of employees based on the square footage of the office. Managers may need to cut back on employees, making them really consider whether they need Kurt in HR to tell them what they can and cannot wear on casual Friday. Perhaps we can get by without Kurt?

I also think we’ll all need to be more mindful about work that we naturally outsource. For example, office cleaning companies may be under more scrutiny now. We may want to know what they are using to clean the surfaces, how often they clean, etc. This is true for other businesses that come into our office space like shredding companies and delivery companies.

Clients

How we handle clients is interesting as well. No more handshakes make greetings a little strange, and now the eight-person conference room table only accommodates four people. How do we handle the paper that is constantly passed between clients and our office?

The trick here is recognizing what clients want and what your staff wants. Everyone wants to be safe, but everyone’s degree of safety is different. This is especially true if you work with people who are at higher risk, like older people. If your practice is focused on estate planning, you probably need to take their needs into consideration.

I think our views on personal safety fall on a spectrum. Some people have no cares, refuse to wear PPE, and think you’re silly for worrying. They are on one side of the spectrum. Then there are people who wear goggles, mask, and gloves. They carry hand sanitizer in their pockets and burn their mail before opening it. They are on the other side of the spectrum.

Obviously, most people fall somewhere in the middle, but it can be difficult to determine where a client or employee lies and treat them with the safety they expect. Plus, those needs change daily. People may start to feel more comfortable. If we have a second spike in cases, people may trend towards more cautious. Everyone will be different.

Another potential option is to do away with client consultations. It’s a classic mainstay of law firms, I know, but perhaps they aren’t really necessary. I’ve been able to sign clients over the last two months without consultations. However, some clients want the show of a consultation, and I don’t blame them since they’re spending a lot of money. I also suspect many attorneys don’t feel as comfortable selling over the phone. This is something we should all get used to.

The Darker Side – Tracking

The last thing I wanted to touch on is something that will become a big topic over the next few months and years: tracking. We could see a real erosion of our privacy due to contact-tracking efforts.

Cushman & Wakefield, a global real estate company, has installed beacons in its office to track employees’ movements via their cell phone (mentioned here). That should terrify you. The obvious fear is that your boss will now know exactly how much time you spend in the bathroom, but another concern is that we are establishing a police state within our offices. I’m not excited about the direction this is heading.

There has also been talk of trying to use infrared detectors to determine if someone has a fever in order to bar them from entering a location. Not only is technology not ready for this (because it’s not good enough), but fever doesn’t prove someone has COVID. We need to seriously consider the black-listing that can occur when people receive a false positive. They may feel obligated to quarantine, or they may be forced to quarantine depending on who takes their temperature. This should concern all of us.

What Will Actually Change?

Many of you are considering all the reasons why none of the above things will work. How can we possibly redesign our offices or change up our personnel? Frankly, there isn’t much I can actually do to my office. It’s only 775 square foot, I can’t exactly put up walls or install cubicles. I only have two employees; can I really spare one just to make some extra space? The answer, many times, is no.

My guess is that many of these changes will not actually occur. Many large companies will be forced to move away from their beautiful open concepts, but I suspect that most small companies will make no changes.

Christos Lynteris, co-author of Plague and the City and a medical anthropologist, says that we may not see any changes (article here) due to COVID. In an article by The Guardian, he says that “epidemics and pandemics have their own temporality” and that “panic dissipates very quickly and people rarely follow up.” He referenced the Hong Kong SARS outbreak in 2003, where they determined that the disease was spreading via leaking sewer pipes but then made no overhaul of the plumbing system. He says, “It has to keep coming back for us to take any notice.”

Will any changes happen? I don’t know. We’ll have to see if any new laws are passed to require any of the social distancing. Without them, our offices may go back to normal within a few months.