Before the pandemic began, it wasn't unusual to come to work and share immediate breathing space with several coworkers who sat a chair's length apart. But now, as more and more employers begin to shift their staff away from remote work and back into offices, it's becoming clear that the traditional "cram everybody together" model may not fly.
Though coronavirus vaccines are said to do a good job of protecting recipients -- so much so that the CDC insists that the fully vaccinated can ditch their masks, even in indoor settings -- not everyone is vaccinated, and not everyone is comfortable with the idea of being stuck in close quarters with colleagues for eight hours at a time.
As a pioneer in office campuses, Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) recognizes that. And now, it's making plans to have its offices look very different as it gears up to welcome workers back.
A very different setup
One of Google's claims to fame, at least from a human resources perspective, is its office layout and amenities. For years, the company has offered workers open spaces, whimsical common areas, and amenities like hot meals, soft drinks, and an endless supply of snacks designed to entice workers to not leave the premises but instead stay at their desks plugging away.
Now, Google is trying a different approach in an effort to get staff back to the office after more than a year of remote employment. In addition to encouraging (but not requiring) workers to get vaccinated, it will also be implementing different designs that may work better in a post-pandemic world.
As an example, rather than set up endless rows of desks, Google will try setting up team pods. Each pod's design will be fluid. Desks, chairs, and whiteboards will be made available, and teams can arrange -- and rearrange them -- as they see fit.
Google is also taking steps to better blend its in-person and remote staff with new meeting rooms that allow in-person participants to sit in a circle with large vertical displays that show the faces of those dialing in. The company is also constructing outdoor work areas, since science has shown that coronavirus transmission is less likely outside. Incidentally, this approach works well for long-standing viruses like the flu, too.
Technology and more
Some of Google's new designs can be pulled off with an innovative approach to construction. Others, however, will hinge on a combination of design and technology.
One new thing Google is doing is introducing movable walls that can be shipped to its offices so enclosed spaces can be put up and taken down as needed. It's also looking into a technology that will allow inflatable, translucent balloon walls to come up for situations where colleagues need to meet in person and require privacy to do so.
Google is also attempting to solve a long-standing issue in many offices: temperature control. In any given office, there are always those people who claim it's too hot or too cold. As such, Google is looking at a system that allows every seat in its offices to have its own air diffuser to control the direction or amount of air blowing on them.
Finally, Google is trying to address the in-office noise problem. To this end, it's looking at desk chairs with speakers in the headrest that play while noise to muffle surrounding sounds and allow workers to better focus.
Will other companies follow Google's lead?
Google has a lot of money to sink into office design, whereas the typical employer may be on a much tighter budget. But one thing's for sure -- the pandemic will certainly result in a lot of companies rethinking the way their offices are set up, especially as employers increasingly adopt hybrid models that allow employees to work from home on a partial basis and come into the office a few days a week instead of five. And while inflatable walls and individual temperature control consoles may not become the norm, there's a good chance offices will start to look very different as more and more workers return to them.