Opening offices and non-retail workplaces safely in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic will require fundamental changes to workspaces.

Opening offices and non-retail workplaces safely in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic will require fundamental changes to workspaces.

As the Washington region moves closer to phased reopening, employers are grappling with how to make workplaces safe for employees, clients and visitors. Last week, the CDC issued updated guidelines on reopening for businesses. But implementing these guidelines means changes to physical workspaces as well as rules governing even the most mundane tasks — from arrival times at the office to elevator rides.

So what will the post-pandemic office workplace look like? And what can employees expect as mandatory work-from-home comes to an end and workplaces adapt to the “new normal”?

Produced By Monna Kashfi


  • Gabe Bullard Senior Editor and Affordability Desk Project Manager, WAMU; @gbullard
  • Mark Ein Chairman, Kastle Systems; @Markein
  • Andy Stern President, Andy Stern’s Office Furniture; @andysternsofc


  • 12:32:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control issued updated guidelines on reopening for businesses and employers. But implementing these guidelines means changes to physical workspaces, as well as rules governing everything from arrival times at the office to elevator rides. So, what will the post-pandemic office workplace look like? And what can employees expect as mandatory work-from-home comes to an end and offices adapt to the new normal? Joining me now is Gabe Bullard, senior editor in charge of WAMU's Affordability Desk. Gabe Bullard, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:32:40

    GABE BULLARDThanks for having me.

  • 12:32:42

    NNAMDIGabe, you're violating a fundamental rule of mine by appearing on this broadcast today. I think you might know what that rule is.

  • 12:32:50

    BULLARDOh, no. I don't know.

  • 12:32:53

    NNAMDINever work on your birthday. Happy birthday, Gabe. (laugh)

  • 12:32:57

    BULLARD(laugh) Thank you. Thank you very much. Always a good birthday when I can join you.

  • 12:33:03

    NNAMDIGabe, the CDC has released guidelines for reopening offices and workplaces. What are the main things they're recommending?

  • 12:33:10

    BULLARDYeah. So, there are, I think, three big parts to this reopening. It's cleaning, it's social distancing and reporting illness. There are all kind of ways offices may be implementing this with equipment or with practices. But I think the basics are for cleaning, disinfecting surfaces, especially those that are shared, letting outside air in whenever possible and keeping sanitizers, soap, sinks, all that, stocked and ready to go.

  • 12:33:35

    BULLARDFor social distancing it could mean, depending on the office, closing the break room, requiring masks, limiting access to meeting rooms, that sort of thing. Also changes to workstations and desks. Maybe putting up some walls in between folks or spreading them out a little bit more. And then also changes to schedules. So, people might be coming to work at different times or tele-working.

  • 12:33:57

    BULLARDAnd then as far as reporting illnesses go, just making sure that if someone is sick, they're able to stay home, either tele-work or take a sick day. And then letting anybody they may have been in contact with know that someone had called in sick or that somebody is sick, in case additional measures are going to be needed there.

  • 12:34:14

    NNAMDIGabe, you've been talking with people who are helping businesses prepare for the return of their staff to offices. How are employers tackling implementing these recommendations?

  • 12:34:23

    BULLARDSo, it varies office to office, but one that I talked to, they said they're embracing the flexibility of remote work, first and foremost. They have some workers who like it, and they have others who have said that they really need it with childcare or other issues. So, they may be staying home a little bit longer, or working from home more days out of the week. And that's going to keep the office less full.

  • 12:34:42

    BULLARDOthers, though, are going to be ordering some new furniture. They might be putting up sneeze guards at desks or at meeting tables. And thinking about some longer term changes that might be happening to keep people more distanced as that tele-work starts to ramp down. And then they're also thinking about regular health checks in the workplace, too, whether that's something that employees are sort of asked to do on their own, or whether that's something that you're going to have to do before you can even get into the building.

  • 12:35:05

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Mark Ein. He is the chairman of Kastle Systems, a leading managed security solutions company based in Falls Church, Virginia. Mark, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:35:15

    MARK EINThanks for having me. Always great to be with you, Kojo.

  • 12:35:18

    NNAMDIMark, always good to talk to you, too. For listeners who may not be familiar, what kinds of services and products does Kastle Systems provide?

  • 12:35:26

    EINSo, yeah, so Kastle, for 45 years, has provided managed security systems for commercial office buildings. So, we secure over half the large buildings in the DMV, 1,200 buildings in total, that 620,000 people work in just in our region. And we provide the access control, the card, the key fob or the app on your phone that lets you get in the building and your tenant space. We also use video systems in the buildings in the tenant spaces to further enhance the security of those buildings.

  • 12:36:01

    NNAMDISo, that's what you do when you're not playing or managing tennis, (laugh) Mark. Mark, you and your team have identified four essential pillars for the safe reopening of offices. Can you briefly tell us what they are?

  • 12:36:15

    EINYeah, and I think it was great to hear from Gabe about the three sort of foundational layers that he mentioned, cleaning, social distancing and reporting. Because our four pillars are four more layers that, using technology, I think really enhance and complement the things he said. So, our four things are, first of all, touchless. The office building has a huge amount of shared surfaces. And through using technology, we're trying to make virtually all of them touchless.

  • 12:36:43

    EINSo, when you approach the building with your access, whatever it is, app or card, the door will automatically open. You'll be able to call elevators from the app on your phone, tell them what floor you're going to when you get to your office suite. Again, the door can open automatically. So, eliminating shared surfaces is one.

  • 12:37:03

    EINAnd then screening in and screening out. So, again, you're using the access control and then potentially some additional kiosks in the building, either manned or man-less, figuring out who should not be there. So, for instance, Gabe said if someone said they're reported ill, not just telling them not to come in the office but actually making it so that the access control system says you're not allowed in the office until you're better.

  • 12:37:30

    EINAnd then screening in, you know, if someone, for instance, has antibodies, and we know they're okay, or they filled out a health questionnaire or they took a test and they have a verified result, we can screen them in quickly. And then for the people in between, again, there may be kiosks in the building where we'll take temperature checks, ask questions, and then figure out who should be able to come in or out of the building.

  • 12:37:53

    EINSocial distancing using technology to enforce the staggered work schedules, probably visitor would probably be pretty -- either visitor prohibitions or visitor restrictions, using access control to do that. Using cameras to be able -- and access data to know how crowded a space is. And if it gets too crowded, to say we shouldn't let more people in the building or the space.

  • 12:38:15

    EINAnd then the last piece, which is really foundational for us as a region, is contact tracing. We're recommending to buildings that they turn on their access control systems 24/7. Usually, people only use it at nights and on the weekends. And during the workdays, the space is just open for people to come and go. We're suggesting that people make people log in and log out every time they come in to the system and into the tenant spaces, which creates a permanent record of who was in the spaces and when.

  • 12:38:45

    EINAnd so, if after the fact, we find out someone was sick, we can go back, cross reference and figure out who was in the building or the space at the same time, and let them know they may have come in contact with someone who is sick and they should watch for symptoms, possibly get tested. And we think contact tracing is a really important component of the return to work, and that using this technology, it's actually totally automated and very simple to do that within the workplace.

  • 12:39:13

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Andy Stern, president of Andy Stern's office furniture based in Rockville, Maryland. Andy Stern, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:39:21

    ANDY STERNThank you, Kojo. A longtime fan of the show. Honored to be here.

  • 12:39:24

    NNAMDIGlad you could join us, Andy. Your company helps businesses with the physical design and layout of their office spaces, as well as the furnishings and supplies. What's the most common request you've been getting as your clients prepare to reopen their offices?

  • 12:39:39

    STERNWell, that's a really easy one. Everyone wants, let's call them, sneeze guard protectors, or wellness screens. These are like the acrylic panels you see in the grocery store between you and the checkout clerk. So, we are getting lots of requests to retrofit offices. A couple of quick examples, we have a small law firm in Rockville. It's an estate planning firm, and they needed to stay open the whole time during this pandemic because they're doing important work. So, we have retrofitted their reception station with an acrylic sneeze guard protector.

  • 12:40:14

    STERNAnd then right down the middle of their conference table, they've got a really large conference table, we've put acrylic protectors with little openings at the bottom, like you'd see at the bank. They don't have Mark Ein's fancy door openers yet, but they just keep their front door open. They're in an office building. The client walks in, goes to their side of the sanitized conference table, passes documents back and forth, then they wash their hands and leave. It's almost a touchless experience.

  • 12:40:45

    STERNAnd then we have, on the other end, a client, an association that has 75 open office workstations. As you know, open office was the major trend in commercial design over the past several years. And it's all based on collaboration and people working together. Well, obviously, that's not a great thing when you come back into an office in this situation. So, we have provided them with screen guard sneeze protectors that actually get attached on the top of their four-and-a-half foot high panels, making the panels up to about eight feet high. And we're retrofitting their whole office that way. So, that's really what we're working on a lot now, Kojo.

  • 12:41:25

    NNAMDIAndy, I'm thinking the demand for acrylic panels and Plexiglas must be very high right now. Are you still able to source it easily, or is Plexiglas the new toilet paper?

  • 12:41:37

    STERN(laugh) So far so good, but we are hearing, in the industry, that there may be coming shortages, and a little concerned about that, because the need is so big out there. But, so far, we're doing -- so far so good.

  • 12:41:52

    NNAMDIAndy, what about the actual office furniture itself? Is there a way to make that more sanitary or less likely to be a surface for the spread of the virus?

  • 12:42:01

    STERNWell, I think in terms of new design and new offices, you'll probably see, short term, higher cubes coming back as opposed to the lower ones I was talking about. And I think you'll see those surfaces being not fabric, which tends to trap germs, but probably a lot of glass, and probably some laminate that's easily cleanable. That's what we're hearing in the industry and thinking that that's what it's going to be as we start to sell new furniture to offices in the future.

  • 12:42:35

    NNAMDIMark Ein, same question to you. When you have dozens or, in many cases, hundreds of people all working in the same shared space, there are a lot of surfaces that are being touched by all of these people. How can you minimize shared, touch surfaces in an office?

  • 12:42:51

    EINWell, again, I think a lot of the ones that you see in the lobby, the elevator controls, the doors, we're finding a way to use technology to automate them. And I agree that, within the office, I think people are going to stick more to their own environments that are physically separated. And just look where we all go to the grocery -- you know, people are going to the grocery store. We're starting to go back to other areas. And the same commonsense approaches you have in other places we're going to bring to the workplace.

  • 12:43:23

    NNAMDIHere is Starr in Washington, D.C. Starr, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:43:28

    STARRThank you very much for taking my call. I have a concern that not only workplaces, but businesses, Apple computer stores, for instance, and your guest Mark's facility, are using temperature testing to gauge whether or not someone is entering the premises who may be contagious.

  • 12:43:52

    STARRMy understanding from everything I've read and numerous reports that I've heard, or personal accounts, is that many people, not only people who are generally asymptomatic, but who have actually been deathly ill and barely survived, did survive, but just barely, have never -- they've had all the other symptoms, but it's very common that people have no temperature whatsoever. And I don't know why there's a reliance on this method, given that fact. Thank you very much.

  • 12:44:29

    NNAMDIThank you very much. Gabe Bullard, is the CDC saying anything about temperature tests?

  • 12:44:33

    BULLARDThey mentioned temperature checks and checking for symptoms, as well. I mean, it does become tough, given how many people are asymptomatic with COVID or with other illnesses, as well. But in the CDC guidelines, among the health checks that they recommend are checking for symptoms and checking for temperature, at this point, which seems to be -- you know, it's not going to catch the people who are asymptomatic, but it's going to catch the people who do have these symptoms. And it seems to be the best way for now.

  • 12:45:02

    NNAMDIAndy Stern, signage also plays a big role in raising awareness about these new safety guidelines, and hopefully helping people carry them out on a daily basis. What are you seeing, as far as signs that are going up in offices?

  • 12:45:13

    STERNYeah, I think you're going to see signs everywhere in an office. It's going to be maybe, like, in the grocery stores where you have arrows telling you which way, which aisle you can come down, reminding you to stay six feet apart, reminding you to sanitize your workstation. I think that's going to be the big thing. And we’re seeing a lot of our manufacturers now offering dozens and different types of signs to post inside of an office, just to remind everyone, as Gabe was talking about, to stay apart.

  • 12:45:45

    STERNI also think, when we come back to the office, they're going to look empty. As Gabe was talking about, most people we're talking to are saying they're going to stage their comeback. So, they'll have an A team and a B team and maybe a C team. And you'll have people in every other workstation. So, I think things are going to look different in the short term as offices open back up and get up and running.

  • 12:46:07

    NNAMDIMark Ein, what kind of costs are we talking about here for these technology solutions? Are they manageable for building owners and businesses?

  • 12:46:16

    EINYeah, let me answer that, and I wanted to come back to your caller's pervious question, the temperature check.

  • 12:46:21


  • 12:46:22

    EINThey are manageable and, in fact, one of the interesting things, Kojo, is everyone who has a Kastle system already in their building, a lot of the functionality that we've talked to is already embedded in. And if people have other access control systems, which virtually all big buildings do, a lot of the things we're talking about are built in.

  • 12:46:42

    EINIt's interesting. I realize, through this, that necessity isn't only the mother of invention but the mother of adoption. And a lot of the things we had hoped that people would do in the past for just safety and security, now they're going to do for this. And then there are some incremental technologies and features and products that we think people should implement, but cost -- nothing's cost prohibitive and nothing should -- cost should not be a reason that people don't do the things that we're talking about. They really aren't that expensive, especially spread out amongst the big office buildings.

  • 12:47:15

    EINBut I wanted to come back to your caller's question...

  • 12:47:17


  • 12:47:18

    EIN...about temperature checks, because we've thought a lot about this. When we started this, our vision of what it would take to get back to the office was a simple, fast, accurate, cheap test that everyone would take when they came in. That's the holy grail, but we're a long way away from that anywhere. That's just not the reality of it. And so there is no silver bullet to know 100 percent that everyone, anywhere you go, is safe.

  • 12:47:43

    EINAnd so the approach that everyone is taking, whether it's the office building or restaurants or the grocery store, is to mesh together a series of screens that, in aggregate, hopefully is what keep people safe. So, you don't rely solely on temperature checks. You do want to also ask -- you want to have people have questionnaires, you want to do contact tracing, see if they've been near people. And temperature checks are not solely determinant of whether someone is safe or not. It's just one piece of a much bigger mesh of screens that people will use to determine if that person should come in.

  • 12:48:20

    NNAMDIWell, that does seem to make sense. Andy Stern, back to this issue of cost, how about costs for your clients? Has that been a concern?

  • 12:48:27

    STERNYou know, I think there is some cost concern out there, just given the nature of where we are. But, like Mark said, I think our products -- assuming that acrylic doesn't go through the roof if there's a shortage, but right now we're not there -- are affordable, and something that employers really should do to make sure that they protect their employees as they come back to work.

  • 12:48:52

    NNAMDIGabe Bullard, you and your team on the affordability desk have been reporting on the economic impact the pandemic is having here in the Washington region. Do you think small businesses will be able to take on the cost of implementing the changes that are needed to make workplaces safe now, especially considering that many have been dealing with reduced revenues over the past few months?

  • 12:49:12

    BULLARDI think it's going to be really tough for some businesses. And, in the course of my reporting, I had kind of come across this idea that we could end up with, at least in the short term unless there's some changes to building codes and that sort of thing or some sort of relief package to change offices, we could end up having for a while sort of various tiers of safety for offices. Just like some offices tend to have better amenities now for workers. Some offices may have some of these higher-end features installed earlier, or working a little bit sooner.

  • 12:49:41

    BULLARDBut, at the same time, the managers who I spoke with know and -- they either know or they're learning now that they can't be lax with worker safety after this. Even if they can't afford some of the higher tech solutions right now, there are other ways to address worker concerns. I think Andy had mentioned sort of one-way hallways, that sort of thing.

  • 12:49:58

    BULLARDThere are a lot of steps that aren't going to cost as much money. You can ramp up regular cleanings. You can be more flexible with remote work, with sick leave, as well, with staggered work schedules and social distancing. All these things can kind of be done at a lower cost. But I think the thing is that managers I've talked to have noticed is the psychology, this is important. Workers need to be safe. They also need to feel safe if they're going to come back.

  • 12:50:22

    NNAMDIAnd what we were just talking about with Mark Ein, Gabe, the CDC guidelines also including recommendations for monitoring staff once they've returned to the office and maintaining a healthy operation. You did mention that temperature checks would be a part of that, but any additional steps involved?

  • 12:50:40

    BULLARDI think part of it is also going to be letting people know if a colleague that they have come in contact with has called in sick. Maybe somebody was asymptomatic, or maybe someone did have exposure and they didn't realize it. They learn a few days later, they have symptoms a few days later. It's going to be really on these employers to let people know if they have come in contact with somebody who may have been ill, so that those workers can stay home and take all the necessary measures.

  • 12:51:07

    BULLARDI think that's going to be tough to do because there's a lot of privacy concerns. And, yeah, I think the privacy concerns are going to be huge, and we may start seeing some changes to sick leave policies and tele-work, as well. Because, I think, you know, in a lot of workplaces there was kind of this habit of going in if you might have a little bit of a cough or something like that. And that's going to really have to change. And I think workplaces are going to have to be places where you're comfortable calling in sick, or working from home if you're not feeling well.

  • 12:51:35

    BULLARDAnd on top of that, yeah, these privacy concerns, I think, are going to be something really to keep in mind. And the CDC recommends doing it was sensitivity and privacy top of mind. But I think you're dealing with people's medical history here, but it's also a dire need to let people know if they come across somebody who's sick.

  • 12:51:51

    NNAMDIMark Ein, we got this Tweet from Michelle, who says: as an independent contractor who works from shared offices, what can I do for safety? Do shared offices even make sense anymore, at all? I know places like WeWork and the like. Mark Ein, care to comment?

  • 12:52:06

    EINYeah, I don't actually think there's any inherent difference between a shared office where it's a number of companies in the same space like WeWork or another company whereas employees, you know, who work together. In fact, you could argue that, potentially, the shared office places, just given their scale, could put a lot into thinking about this and invest more easily into the things needed to make it more safe.

  • 12:52:38

    EINI think the one big thing is just the coordination between companies is a little harder. A lot of what we're relying on here is employers who control their tenant spaces are the ones who need to understand who in their workforce is sick and then notifying others.

  • 12:52:54

    EINAnd so my biggest suggestion with shared office providers is you need to come up with some way so that while maintaining people's privacy, you also have the ability to notify people outside individual companies, the other companies in your shared space, people who may have been in the space and may have been sick. I think that's the biggest issue that they're going to have to figure out.

  • 12:53:19

    NNAMDIAndy Stern, any thoughts on this?

  • 12:53:22

    STERNWell, it's interesting. One of our larger clients is a local shared office company. And we're working on three new locations for them right now. And we've had to rethink the design of their offices, to some extent. And what I mean by that is we're seeing many more private offices, as opposed to the big open office areas like you would see in shared office spaces, for those exact reasons, to keep people separated.

  • 12:53:46

    STERNAnd then in the open office areas, we're actually seeing them take a little bit more space and then having to separate social distance, the tables that go into those open areas. And, interestingly enough, it's been a real design problem, because those are usually sit-to-stand tables that are ganged together and daisy-chained, electronically. And now we have to put those sit-to-stand tables, which take power, six or seven feet apart from each other.

  • 12:54:14

    STERNWe did find a manufacturer who came up with a really innovative product that you plug into the wall. It has a battery so that you can move it into the middle of the room. You can plug all your devices into it and can still go up and down, because it's got this battery in it. So, we are seeing some changes in the shared office space. It's moving to more privacy, and then bigger open areas with individually separated sit-to-stand desks.

  • 12:54:38

    NNAMDIAnd finally, Andy, you're also board chair for the Bethesda Chamber of Commerce. What are you hearing from members about how they plan to deal with the reopening of their offices? Any of them considering giving up office space or continuing operations remotely? We only have about 30 seconds.

  • 12:54:52

    STERNSure. Yes, we are hearing from some people thinking about downsizing their offices. Some can't because they need to work collaboratively. Others are saying, hey, it's working from home. We can do what we want now, so we may take less space in the future. I think the question is out on what's going to happen in office space in the future. We'll just have to wait and see.

  • 12:55:12

    NNAMDIAndy Stern is president of Andy Stern's Office Furniture based in Rockville, Maryland. Andy, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:55:18

    STERNThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:55:19

    NNAMDIMark Ein is the chairman of Kastle Systems. Mark Ein, always a pleasure.

  • 12:55:25

    EINAlways great to be with you.

  • 12:55:26

    NNAMDIAnd Gabe Bullard is the senior editor in charge of WAMU's Affordability Desk. Gabe, take the rest of the day off for your birthday, but don't tell them I told you that because I don't want us both to get fired. (laugh)

  • 12:55:40

    BULLARD(laugh) Will do. Thank you.

  • 12:55:40

    NNAMDIGabe, thank you for joining us. This segment on the post-pandemic workplace was produced by Monna Kashfi. Our conversation about the pandemic's impact on local nursing homes was produced by Kayla Hewitt.

  • 12:55:49

    NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, Dr. Leana Wen returns to answer your questions about health and safety concerns as we move toward reopening. Plus, as restrictions imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus loosen, many of us face difficult dilemmas about who we should see and where we should go. To figure out ethical answers to these questions, we've invited some moral philosophers to join us and help us out. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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