In recent years, companies have sought to achieve the ideal workplace culture. That included shifting away from cubicles and embracing more open and coworking space, offering staff happy hours, catered lunches, and more – all meant to improve employee morale and bring people closer together. However, these efforts came to a screeching halt amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, which shuttered the economy and forced everyone who could work remotely to do so. But, after weeks of work from home protocols, on May 18, 2020, Governor Baker announced that under Phase 1 of the Massachusetts reopening plan, offices across the Commonwealth were allowed to open at 25% capacity, while abiding by mandatory safety standards for workplaces. Now as Massachusetts slowly begins to reopen and employees start returning to their offices, companies must rethink how their office space can still promote collaboration and positive office culture while also ensuring employee safety. Critical questions to ask as you are considering a return to work plan include: In your finite amount of square feet, where will people sit? How will they move around the office, and in what direction? Does everyone need to return? Do I need to expand our physical lab space?
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the adoption of open floor plans, with the promise of more collegiality, often came with the caveat of more crowded workspaces. For the life sciences, in particular, this trend was adopted in force due to the increasing cost of office space. The requirements for increased social distancing and other safety standards in offices, however, is poised to be a driving factor in reversing this trend. In the coming months, we will likely see the reintroduction of cubicles and individual offices – employees will have separate workstations in lieu of clustered desks. Some are even considering adding plexiglass barriers between cubicles to increase safety. However, these makeshift barriers and other necessary safety supplies are on backorder, further delaying safe returns to offices.
COVID-19 may have larger implications than just office redesign. The parallel need for social distancing in lab space is likely to remain the norm for the foreseeable future, or at least until we have a vaccine. As a result, life sciences companies may need to physically expand their lab space and even take over what is currently office space as non-laboratory workers can continue to work remotely.
For individuals in non-laboratory roles, working from home will likely become much more commonplace. Companies will begin to embrace more remote work and realize how productive people can be remotely – and that productivity can increase when people are offered more flexibility. We’ve already experienced the overwhelming uptake in virtual meetings, events, and conferences with employees working at home, and this is expected to remain the status quo until it is safe, and advisable, to meet in person again. Additionally, flexible work schedules will save employers more in the long run on supplies, electricity, utilities, and workstations, opening up the potential for companies to downsize their space to save money.
Office life, as we once knew it, cannot return to normal until we have a vaccine that can inoculate enough people across the globe to achieve population immunity. And, even then, the office dynamic will shift. COVID-19 has fundamentally changed every aspect of business as we know it, but we will come out on the other side stronger and with a new definition of what it means to work together while physically apart.
MassBio has spent a lot of time thinking about this, both for our own employees and for our members, and have put together best practices for keeping employees safe while at the office. We’ve also expanded our offerings for the MassBioHub, MassBio’s new conference and business center, to provide members a safe place to meet in small groups while social distancing, and/or to create a studio experience for virtual events. For more details, visit https://hub.massbio.org/.