Taller cubicles, one-way aisles: Office workers must adjust

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Vice President Rachel Zsembery at the design firm Bergmeyer, arranges lighting for zoom meetings, Wednesday, July 29, 2020, at the company's offices, in Boston. To reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus, the firm implemented one-way routes throughout the office, added higher cubicle walls, requires masks when not at the desk, added hand sanitizer stations and put in lots of signs to make sure rules are clear. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

NEW YORK – Bergmeyer, a design firm in Boston, has erected higher cubicles, told employees to wear masks when not at their desks and set up one-way aisles in the office that force people to walk the long way around to get to the kitchen or the bathroom.

“The one-way paths take me a little out of the way, but it was easy to get used to,” said Stephanie Jones, an interior designer with the company. “It actually gives me the opportunity to see more people and say a quick hello when I might have just walked directly to my desk before.”

Around the U.S., office workers sent home when the coronavirus took hold in March are returning to the world of cubicles and conference rooms and facing certain adjustments: masks, staggered shifts, spaced-apart desks, daily questions about their health, closed break rooms and sanitizer everywhere.

For some at least, there are also advantages, including the opportunity to share chitchat with colleagues again or the ability to get more work done.

Employers in some cases are requiring workers to come back to the office, but most, like Bergmeyer, are letting the employees decide what to do, at least for now. Some firms say the risks and precautions are worth it to boost productivity and move closer to normal.

It is meager trend so far: Real estate trade group NAIOP Massachusetts estimated the occupancy rate for many office towers in downtown Boston at around 5%, and 10% to 20% in the suburbs. That echoes what is happening in other cities. In New York, real estate firm CBRE said the offices it manages have a 7% occupancy rate in Manhattan and nearly 30% in the suburbs.

Bergmeyer began bringing people back in June in stages. It is now in Phase Three, with 60% of the staff back in the office but split into two groups: Half come in on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the other half on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Employees are asked to report any symptoms to a human resources director who can work with them on getting tested and quarantining themselves.