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Blair Kamin: Will the open-plan office make you vulnerable to coronavirus? Or will the virus crisis force offices to become safer?

Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Home and Consumer News

Even before coronavirus struck, critics were slamming the layout used in most American offices -- the open plan -- as noisy, distracting, stress-inducing, and nowhere near the teamwork booster its designers made it out to be.

"Open-plan offices are now the dumbest management fad of all time." Inc. magazine proclaimed in 2018, pouncing on a Harvard study that showed such layouts actually decrease face-to-face collaboration.

Now, with President Donald Trump aiming to reopen parts of the country by Easter, millions of American office workers are likely to find themselves in unsettling new territory -- trying to maintain social distancing and steer clear of germs in densely packed workplaces that put them in proximity with each other and germs that could spread the virus.

Many medical experts don't relish the prospect of a quick return to work in any setting, open-plan or otherwise. "The best way not to spread coronavirus is to close the office," said Dr. Benjamin Singer, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

Yet the health crisis could have a significant impact on workplaces, just as the shock of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made security measures part of the daily routine. Unlike the hassles associated with such features, however, the impact could be positive.

A growing number of building owners and developers, including the owners of such prominent Chicago properties as the Merchandise Mart, already have latched onto the concept of office spaces that promote employee wellness with such features as internal stairs that encourage employees to walk from floor to floor instead of taking the elevator.


More companies can be expected to follow, experts say, not only because job seekers will be attracted to such work environments but also because existing employees will demand them.

Companies also could wind up allowing more employees to telecommute if the present predicament demonstrates that remote work doesn't hurt productivity.

"This is absolutely a pivot point for the world of work," said Todd Heiser, co-managing director of the Chicago office of the global design firm Gensler.

An estimated 70% of American offices use some form of the open plan, which departs from the traditional arrangement of private offices on the perimeter and workstations on the interior.


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