The open office floor plan has to change — at least during the coronavirus pandemic


by Katie Park, Updated: June 17, 2020

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck in the United States, employees at the commercial real estate firm Binswanger sat with clients who wanted to remodel their office work spaces and mulled everything from floor plans to fabric swatches for new furniture.

The evergreen favorites: open floor plans; large conference rooms; sprawling auditoriums. Ideally, employers said, they would bring dozens to hundreds of employees together in a physically uninhibited office to foster creativity, productivity, and collegiality.

Then came the antithesis of those very designs: social distancing.

“Everyone has taken a pause to say, ‘What is this going to look like on the other side, and does that mean I still want the same thing?’” said David Binswanger, chief executive of the Philadelphia-based firm. “… The issues of parking, conference rooms, public meeting spaces, the big auditoriums, the cafeterias, are all being rethought.”

Common new protocol mandates that employees maintain six feet of distance from one another, wash their hands often, avoid close contact in narrow corridors, and stay home if they experience possible coronavirus symptoms.

Clients nearly finished with their redesigns now have to adapt to social-distancing guidelines the best they can. Those who had only begun to redesign before the pandemic have time to rethink plans entirely, Binswanger said, referencing a client who “thought they could never not work together.”

“Now they’re rethinking that whole model,” he said. “They’re worried if they put everyone together, it could cost them their business because they don’t want everyone to get sick at once.”

Companies midway through an overhaul, he said, are in the most difficult situation. “If you’re in the middle, you’re in no man’s land,” Binswanger said. “They might be able to rethink it, but they’ll spend a lot of money.”

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