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No more open-plan offices or water cooler gossip, say US coronavirus workplace guidelines

David Millward
Open plan office - Experience Interieors

Millions of white-collar workers across the US are facing the biggest changes in their careers as the country slowly edges back to normal in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

In many places, the open-plan office, a staple of the American workplace since the 1960s, will become a historical curiosity under sweeping recommendations announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

All 50 US states have eased some of the lockdown restrictions, paving the way for a gradual return to work.

The CDC guidance recommends office managers place desks six feet apart. Should that not be possible, then managers are advised to use plastic screens to prevent transmission of the coronavirus.

Sales of Plexiglass and Perspex,  two leading manufacturers of screens, have soared since the start of the pandemic. 

One California retailer has reported a 200 per cent increase on the same time last year.

Communal seating in breakout areas, where staff traditionally have met to exchange ideas, should be removed.

Office water cooler - Mint Images

Staff should wear face masks at all times and companies should consider taking workers' temperatures when they arrive.

Shift times should be staggered to provide more space for staff who are required to turn up for work.

Offices, meeting rooms and even carparks should be festooned with "visual cues" such as stickers to make sure that staff maintain social distancing.

The water cooler, normally the hub of office gossip. is seen as a potential health hazard.

Instead, staff should be offered bottled water, which is less likely to transmit the virus. Similar restrictions are recommended for coffee and even snacks.

Handshaking, hugging and fist-bumping should be banned. Limits should be placed on the number of people allowed to use a lift.

Offices which have relied on air-conditioning to keep temperatures comfortable should consider just opening the windows if possible, the CDC adds.

Otherwise, air conditioning systems should be bolstered with air filters.

Other recommended precautions include

using ultraviolet light to kill off the virus as well as repeated cleaning and disinfecting of all surfaces.

Even getting to work will be different. After decades of encouraging people to carpool or use public transport to ease congestion, the CDC recommends workers drive themselves to the office.

Several cities including Oakland and Boston, have made some streets car-free zones, to make it easier for pedestrians to maintain social distancing.

The changes come against a backdrop of an increase in teleworking in the US.

A recent study by Upwork, a San Francisco based freelance employment agency, predicted that 73 per cent of companies will have people working from home by 2028.

Even ahead of the CDC recommendations companies were turning to technology to boost safety.

Density, a San Francisco based company, has developed a tool which enables office managers to track how many people are in meeting rooms and issue a warning if there are already too many people inside.

Demand for its product soared with twice as many orders in the first quarter of 2020 as in the whole of 2019.

Many of the changes could be here to stay, Willy Shih, Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Management Practice in Business Administration at Harvard Business School, told the Telegraph.

"Companies found that productivity increased with remote working and they are now asking what am I going to do with all this office space.

"Will the workplace change? For sure it will as companies look to de-intensify. I think it will call hot desking into question."

Even workplace social interaction is likely to change, Prof Shih added.

"I think office gossip will go online and even the happy hour. A lot of these practices will have to take a different form."

John Quelch, dean of Miami Business School, foresaw other difficulties. "The problem is how to develop and sustain a corporate culture when all employees are not together in person."