Open Offices and Cubicle Farms in the Time of COVID-19

While much of the discussion about reopening businesses has focused around things like restaurants and making supermarkets safer, a much unheralded, but important, disease vector is the modern office. Most workers work in either open offices or cubicle farms, which, to understate matters, don’t allow social distancing. The whole point is to jam in as many people as possible. How space is used will have to change, not because of the supposed altruism of bosses, but because illness will knock out their workers (boldface mine):

Moving desks farther apart could also give workers more elbow room.

Over the past decade, many companies eliminated private offices in favor of open plans, but the amount of space per office worker declined 25 percent, said Janet Pogue McLaurin, an architect and principal at the design firm Gensler, which has been tracking changes in the workplace in annual surveys since 2008.

The typical workstation of a decade ago — the cubicle — was 8 by 8 feet. By 2015, the workstation was down to 6 by 8 feet, and in recent years, the contraction has continued.

Benching — desks lined up side by side — has been another way workers have been squeezed.

A benching desk with a width of six feet would be consistent with current social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But many desks are not that wide. And often one row of desks faces another row, so that employees are directly opposite their peers.

To create a six-foot radius around each employee, companies may have to pull desks apart or stagger employees so they are not facing one another, experts say…

Ten percent of American office workers no longer have assigned seats, according to Gensler. This so-called hot-desking, or hoteling — where employees do not have designated desks but instead come in and find a place to sit — may go on hiatus, if only until the fear of contagion fades.

Where I work, it’s cubicles (a large farm), and there’s someone, whom I’ll call Snorty McWheezy, who, too often, shows up sick, and never covers his mouth when he sneezes or coughs (the sneezing could best be described as ‘apocalyptic’). If he gets sick, often we get sick*.

I don’t really want to work near Snorty (and I think Sir McWheezy is a little long in the tooth to change his ways), but, even if Snorty weren’t there, it’s a great environment for spreading disease. There’s another issue. Assuming the Preznit et alia ever get their heads out of their asses and we have some kind of testing and quarantine system, what happens if one of the people in an open office gets COVID-19? Is the whole office quarantined? Workplaces will lose dozens and dozens of employees because of one Snorty. Not good for reopening things.

So far, the discussion has focused on essential personnel who have to be at the workplace for their jobs, such as food service workers. But COVID-19 has the potential to really explode (again) if we don’t figure out what to do about many other workplaces.

*Ironically, this year, I didn’t get a single cold, in part because McWheezy worked from home often, and I was even more berserk about handwashing and alcohol santizing than usual. I had hopes for a ‘good virus year’…

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2 Responses to Open Offices and Cubicle Farms in the Time of COVID-19

  1. Couldn’t most of the people in those cubicle farms work from home permanently? If their bosses weren’t afraid that they’d play hooky, i.e. do what the bosses would do in the same situation.

  2. Evil Overwench says:

    I am so, so grateful they’re letting us work from home. Even before Covid-19 started (that we know of), everyone in the office was sick this winter.

    I used to work for a place with “pods” as opposed to actual cubes. They had 8 inch walls so you could face your co-workers and “collaborate”. Everyone was sick all the time, and you couldn’t concentrate. It involved a lot of phone calls, too. Horrible.

    Open offices need to die.

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