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9 Ways Your Office Might Be Different Once You Return

Staggered work schedules, single-serving snacks and new elevator practices are some ways the pandemic is changing work

spinner image man getting an office space ready for staff return by putting distancing spots on the floor
mixetto/Getty Images

As more people get vaccinated for COVID-19 and employers wrestle with how to reopen their offices, employees are finding they have mixed feelings about going back, especially older adults who may have underlying health conditions or other safety concerns. While some workers will welcome the opportunity to reconnect in person with coworkers, others may want to keep working from home — at least part time — after the pandemic.

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"As we attempt to restore a sense of normalcy, COVID-19 has greatly impacted our sense of socialization. This will definitely filter into the workplace as many are returning into the office from the comforts of their home,” says Shanee M. Hunter, founder of HR Philosophy, an Oak Lawn, Illinois, human resources consulting firm.

As employers make decisions about the best ways to return to the office, one thing is certain: It won't be the same as it used to be. Here are 9 ways your office could change when you go back.

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1. Enhanced safety measures

Most workplaces will have enhanced COVID-19 safety measures in place to keep the risk of infection as low as possible, Hunter says. That may include requiring vaccine records, using apps to report symptoms or checking workers’ temperatures. It's likely that many offices will require masks or some other kind of personal protective equipment. Be sure to ask your employer about their safety protocols, and don't be afraid to seek help if you're having trouble with any new technology being introduced, Hunter says.

Your workplace may also provide extra cleaning and sanitizing products and do deeper cleaning on a regular basis. Employers are also being advised to ensure that their ventilation is adequate and upgrade systems if necessary. (So it might be a good idea to bring a sweater.)

2. Staggered scheduling

One of the biggest takeaways of the past year is how many jobs can be done remotely. And employees are going to want to have that option, Hunter says. As a result, the office is likely to be less crowded than it used to be, with a significant number of employees working from home on any given day, she says.

So-called “hybrid” workplaces will be the norm, both to meet employee preferences and to help companies abide by social distancing practices. Employees may be assigned days to work in the office, or they may get to choose what two or three days a week they want to come in. Others may remain remote, if that option is available.

3. Movable office furniture

The open office floor plan saw some backlash before the pandemic, but it's likely not going anywhere soon, says Rachel Zsembery, vice president of Bergmeyer, a workplace design firm based in Boston and Los Angeles. Employers will be using those open spaces to maintain social distancing by moving cubicles and workstations farther away from one another, she says.

In addition, offices may invest in furniture that can be moved, both to form small collaboration areas and to accommodate employees who have different comfort levels with being around others. “And in some of those confined spaces, the perceived risk is still really, really high, no matter what the actual risk really is,” Zsembery says. Employers will need to arrange offices to help all employees feel safer, regardless of their comfort levels.

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4. Revolving workstations

Because fewer employees are likely to be in the office, employers may also take a different approach to workstations, such as offices and desks, says Susan Dwyer, principal at H. Hendy, a workplace design firm based in Newport Beach, California. That means employees may have more choice about exactly where in the office they work. “Another change we are seeing in the workplace is that more and more companies are requesting free-address workstations and offices that are not assigned and will need to be booked through an app,” she says. So you may work at one workstation on Monday and another when you return to the office on Thursday.

Over the past year, “many people have become accustomed to be paperless, and the technology growth for all generations has increased dramatically,” she says. But because revolving workstations weren't common before the pandemic, it may take some time to get used to this way of working, she says.

5. New ways of walking through the office

Remember those watercooler conversations and impromptu hallway meetings everyone used to have? They may not be that quick to return when offices reopen. Hunter says that some employers are using floor markings to create pathways through the office: Enter one way, leave another. Walk down the hallway on one side of the cubicles, return on the opposite side. Remain a certain distance from others in common areas. The effort is designed to keep employees socially distanced and safe, but it may also make it tougher to randomly pass someone in the hall and strike up a conversation.

Social distancing measures may also affect the number of people allowed in elevators, so give yourself extra time to get to the office if climbing stairs becomes an issue, Zsembery says. If your employer offers flex time, you might choose to start a bit later so you're not commuting in the middle of the morning rush.

But also be aware that the Americans with Disabilities Act will require employers to offer reasonable accommodations if you have a health condition that could make any of the new COVID-related safety practices — such as climbing multiple flights of stairs — too difficult. Discuss any such concerns you have with your supervisor.

6. Single-serving snacks

Also, about that watercooler: Chances are that employers are going to cut back on shared food and beverages, Hunter says. The CDC recommends replacing coffee pots and bulk snacks with individually packaged items. (No ruling yet on birthday cakes.)

Be prepared in case community kitchen areas are not available. You might consider bringing hot or cold food in a container that will maintain its temperature. If you have medications that need to be refrigerated, be sure to check with HR about provisions for such situations.

7. Remote-work tools even in office

"Employees will still be encouraged to use electronic communication methods inside the office to minimize interactions,” Hunter says. So you may still be using video chats or collaboration platforms instead of sitting around a conference table. Learning how to communicate successfully within these environments is going to require new skills and will likely mean the increased use of the tools that became mainstream during remote work, like messaging platforms (Slack, Asana, etc.) and videoconferencing (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.).

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Even quick huddles are going to take more planning than they used to, says Dwyer. “Because most of the workforce is experiencing a desire for a 50/50 split between time at home and time at the office, spur-of-the-moment, in-person team collaboration could decrease due to the hybrid work model. Planned collaboration and training sessions will need to be scheduled in advance,” she says.

8. High-tech conference rooms

Companies are going to need to rethink their meeting spaces, especially conference rooms, Zsembery says. A speaker phone in the middle of the table just isn't going to cut it anymore. What equipment will you need to have an effective meeting with a hybrid team — some people in the office, others attending remotely? While you might think of speaking to a big head on the video screen at one end of the room, that's probably not the best way to work with hybrid teams, she says.

"For shared conference spaces, ensuring that we have the right type of audio is most important. Having a large video screen at the end of the room like we used to use with videoconferencing in the ‘before time’ may not be as effective as having everybody in a room actually on their own laptop,” she says. That will enable each person to adjust their own settings to ensure they can best hear the participants and see the materials being shared.

9. Work-life balance continues to blend

For better or worse, work and life were nearly fully blended during the pandemic. Kim Chan, founder of, a legal tech platform offering free legal documents and resources for individuals, startups and small businesses, says she has adopted a flexible policy about going to the office, even for those in customer-facing roles, which she says are typically done better in the office. Still, she says, when you give employees the flexibility to take care of their priorities, the team is better for it. “Except for urgent tasks, it is still good to give flexibility to people. They tend to work better in relation to creative works since they have time to think about it."

Overall, patience and tolerance are going to be important during the transition and through navigating the changes, Hunter says. Change can make people uncomfortable, and fellow employees may have differing opinions on issues like vaccines and social distancing. Finding ways to communicate and respect coworkers will help ease the transition.

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