FARGO - It's too early to say that office life may never again be the same thanks to COVID-19.

But for most companies, it will be much different - at least for now.

Some firms are finding that they can have many, if not all, of their employees work effectively from their homes.

So, are big office spaces needed?

The novel coronavirus appears to spread quicker when people are packed together.

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Will open offices, collaborative spaces and conference rooms have to be rethought?

What about sanitation? Shared desks? Four-day work weeks?

Businesses across the nation are struggling with these and other questions as they decide when to move their employees back into office environments.

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R.D. Offutt Company must not only retrofit its current south Fargo office, but design its new home in downtown’s Block 9 building.

The firm has been comparing notes with other companies, Vice President of Communications Tara May said Wednesday, May 27.

“One of the hallmarks of our culture is collaboration. So, we designed those new offices with the intent to create a lot of collaborative spaces," May said. “We are not a work-from-home culture … We really value that spirit of collaboration that has made us successful, so we want to continue to foster it, as best we can do it, while maintaining safety."

RDO already supports social distancing by providing directional guidance in hallways, stairways, exit and entrance ways. They are also evaluating the number of people that can be safely in their office.

For Block 9, environmental hygiene is getting a hard look, from door handles to upgrading the HVAC system with an expensive deionization system.

“That is used to kill viruses in the airstream. So when the HVAC system takes in the air and puts it out, it’s going to kill any viral elements in there. So that’s good for the short- and the long-term health of our employees,” May said.

Automated doors are being considered, as well as hardware that makes it possible to use your forearm to open a door, rather than hands, reducing contacts.

“Every organization is looking at how we can do it all; how we can get people back to the environment that they enjoy working in, while also making sure that they stay safe ” May said. “(RDO is) just trying to make things more prescriptive, more intentional, while still maintaining the spirit of working together and collaborating with each other. It’s a fine line.”

Kevin Bartram, a principal at Fargo’s Mutchler Bartram Architects expects offices will have bigger workstations, spaced farther apart, and other more temporary social distancing measures in the short term.

If the coronavirus is a long-term problem, then more substantive changes may be designed into buildings.

“I guess I kind of equate it a little bit to when the (Americans with Disabilities Act) came out. Bathrooms got bigger, doorways got bigger, hallways got wider, that sort of thing,” Bartram said.

The Kilbourne Group has been a driving force in reviving Fargo’s downtown, including the construction of the Block 9 building and several other large projects. Mike Peschel, the managing broker for Kilbourne Commercial Realty, says it will take time to determine if COVID-19 is our “new normal.”

“Is this a 12-month version” of who we will be at work, “or is this the new normal, how it will be for the next 10 years?”

In the meantime, Kilbourne Group is not designing offices based on speculation, he said.

People have been returning to downtowns because they are vibrant places to live and work. The virus has added one more variable in continuing revitalization.

“We’ve got one more thing to try and consider when we manage all those decisions,” Peschel said.

Lots of businesses are looking to retrofit their current offices, says Amy Hannaher-Oveby, marketing manager for Hannaher’s Workplace Interiors.

Three strategies are central to figuring out how to design office spaces going forward, Hannaher-Overby said:

  • The density of the space (the number of people in an area).

  • The geometry of the space. How are furniture and work spaces arranged?

  • The divisions needed. Screens, panels or other barriers needed for safety.

“A reconfiguration might include using every other workstation or rearranging people so they’re not facing each other,” Hannaher-Overby said. “I mean the open office, how does that change? ... Being open isn’t necessarily going to work for everyone.”

Hannaher’s used to allow employees to select their work space daily. To cut down on shared spaces, the nomadic strategy is no more, she said. They also have cleaning teams assigned to go through high-traffic areas, she said.

Hannaher-Overby says the questions don’t stop at offices. What about classrooms? Waiting rooms in hospitals, dental offices car dealerships?

“It (adapting to the virus) certainly changes almost every aspect of our life, doesn’t it?” Hannaher-Overby said.

Safety is key in reopening offices, she said.

“I think that’s everyone’s ultimate goal,” Hannaher-Overby said.

Of course, taking temperatures daily of employees at the front door, requiring medical tests, or redesigning offices doesn’t have to happen if companies have found their employees do work effectively from home.

Webinars and communication tools like Slack, Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams can offer a lot of effective communication. And some employees love the convenience and shelving their daily commute.

But using the internet to work from home doesn’t work for everyone, says Jane Pettinger, assistant professor of management at the Paseka School of Business at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

So far, the nation's productivity is down, Pettinger said, with tech issues and parents trying to juggle work with parenting and kids trying to learn from home playing a part. It’s also more difficult to build a shared corporate culture when people aren’t present to model for it or take part in it.

Still, “I definitely think we’ll see more people working from home,” Pettinger said.

She says many companies and workers may feel it’s best to go back to the office, but that may mean having people work every other day, or four-day work weeks, to cut down on the number of people using the same space at the same time.

Determining the new normal will take a while, Pettinger said.

“Six months from now, or a year from now, we’ll have much better directions on where we are going,” Pettinger said.