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Reconsidering — and reconfiguring — the way we work in the office

The Omni in Uniondale is part of the

The Omni in Uniondale is part of the property portfolio of RXR Realty, which is implementing measures to keep workers safe. Credit: Kevin Chu / Jessica Paul

The office you return to after the COVID-19 lockdown could be far different from the one you left. 

Conference rooms, crowded elevators, the hours you work in the office -- even the direction you walk -- are coming under scrutiny.

And the moment when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gives Long Island businesses the green light will be only the beginning of a long transformation, business executives and real estate managers say.

One element common to every plan calls for increased spacing among employees.

"We're going to have less density," said Scott Rechler, chairman and chief executive of RXR Realty LLC. "On Long Island, you'll probably dedensify maybe 50% ... so you can maintain social distancing."

Lee Rosner, managing principal at Coldwell Banker Commercial, a manager of industrial real estate, said the 20 employees currently working in his Islandia office are divided into teams that alternate each day between five morning hours and five afternoon hours to keep office density low.

Employees are expected to work additional hours at home. The shortened office shifts are designed to let workers avoid using the bathrooms, he said.

"It's about rotating people so we maximize separation," he said.

Separation is enhanced by shields between cubicles, he said.

Uniondale-based developer and property manager RXR has circulated memos to tenants outlining new operational plans.

Along with increased cleaning and upgraded air filtration, RXR recommends: staggering arrival times, ensuring seats have "proper social spacing," limiting or eliminating visitors and encouraging staffers to bring meals from home to avoid trips outside.

RXR will be rolling out new technology to facilities, including air-quality sensors and temperature scanning devices in lobbies to detect if someone has a fever.

In addition, the property manager will be asking "all occupants" to use an RXR tenant app.

Rechler said RXR is developing the app with consultancy McKinsey & Company. The software is designed to help workers monitor social distancing, enables requests for cleaning and provides message functions.

Rechler said feedback on the app has been positive. "I think people need this," he said. "The circumstance was dire."

Evan Krinick is managing partner at Uniondale law firm Rivkin Radler LLP, which occupies an RXR property.

He said the real estate company's program included "smart and thoughtful" precautions that mirror some proposals of a New York State Bar Association task force that is lobbying the governor to include law firms in an early wave of reopenings.

Cuomo is developing a phased plan to restart the economy after COVID-19 lockdown regulations expire May 15.

Asked if RXR's lobby sensors and apps could pose privacy issues, Krinick said that his law firm would follow the guidance of federal regulators.

Lou Basso, chief executive and chairman of Alcott HR, a Farmingdale human resources and payroll services provider, said he misses the camaraderie at his 80-person office, but that low-density offices could become the norm in the future.

"I see a lot of businesses going forward saying, I don't need 100% of my staff in the office," he said. "It will help with distancing and keeping some costs down."

Rob Kuppersmith, managing director of the Melville office of real estate services provider Cushman & Wakefield, said that conference rooms, long a vital feature of office architecture, could stand vacant.

"People don't want to be in these closed environments anymore," he said.

One-way paths through the office will help minimize close encounters under the new protocols, while workers will eat at their desks rather than go to pantries or lunch rooms, he said.

Concerns about commuting also could prompt some companies to downsize their presence in Manhattan and open small suburban offices.

"They're calling them touchpoint offices," Kuppersmith said. "Touchpoint means they can get in their car and drive to it."

Bob Prosen, a business management consultant in Dallas, said whatever plan is put into place must account for the concerns of employees.

"The No. 1 concern for employees is going to be workplace risk," he said. "They need to be comfortable."

A nationwide poll of more than 1,000 office workers last month by staffing services company Robert Half International found strong backing for continued telecommuting even after businesses reopen.

Seventy-nine percent said they wanted their companies to allow more frequent work from home, 55% favored staggered work schedules and 52% backed mandates for wearing face masks.

Prosen said it's essential that businesses appoint a senior-level executive to stress the importance of the office safety program.

"It should not be a junior level person," he said. "It could make the difference between opening then closing."

Ultimately, Rechler said, office life could return to something approximating that of the past, but the "new abnormal" could last a year or a year-and-a-half.

"It's going to be abnormal until there are vaccines or therapeutics."

Virus-fighting office features

•One-way paths

•Shields between cubicles

•Increased cleaning

•Limits on visitors

•Eating at desks instead of lunchrooms

•Staggered office shifts

•Apps to monitor social distancing and keep workers informed

•Sensors to monitor employee temperatures

•Mask policies

•Curbs on conference room use

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