In the British Columbia era – before COVID-19 – employees at Greg Matusky’s public relations firm took advantage of a free breakfast buffet, a full gym equipped with Peloton bikes, weekly happy hours, onsite sessions with a massage therapist, and free parking. But when he interviewed his staff last week to see if they hadn’t missed stepping into the company’s Ardmore office, the response was resounding. no. In a company-wide questionnaire, 75% said they hoped to continue working from home even after the coronavirus lockdown was lifted.

“I never see them coming back every day,” said Matusky, whose company, Gregory FCA, works with clients such as the Eagles and AccuWeather.

He’s not unhappy with that. Creativity and productivity have improved since everyone started hiding in their homes. If Matusky downsized his office in Ardmore’s business district, he could probably cut his annual rent bill by half of $ 384,000.

Matusky is not ready to take this step – not yet. But it will balance the decision with the intimidating and costly measures needed to renovate its three-story office building to make it safe for its 76 employees. In other words, assuming it is possible to secure any office in the company.

Across the country, business leaders are evaluating the same set of variables. Their decisions have the potential to reshape the downtown office district as we know it, depopulating the glittering trophy towers and further depleting the tax revenues of American cities. Large corporate offices won’t cease to exist, but they could be transformed into something like conference centers, where people occasionally gather for corporate meetings, trainings, or special projects.

One of the reasons that office life is likely to undergo such a drastic reinvention is that many employees seem to like their new arrangement. When American white-collar workers were brutally sent home two months ago, few could have imagined the transition to remote working would be so smooth. Most companies assumed that their employees would eventually congregate in their cubicles, scour the mold from their coffee cups, and resume their usual office rituals – minus the shared snacks.

Yet somehow the job was done remotely, even by stressed parents who had to switch between demanding bosses and needy children. As weeks turned into months, office workers settled into new routines. They set up workspaces in spare rooms and dens, bought scanners and printers, and mastered the etiquette of virtual meetings. Many have also discovered the pleasures of midday walks and home-cooked dinners, not to mention the extra hour saved by not having to travel.

“I can’t imagine going back to the office every day. And my dog ​​is going to have a nervous breakdown when I do, ”said Eileen Hurley, a criminal defense attorney who works in Center City, referring to Donut, her slightly overweight pug.

Even in professions where daily collaboration is required, like architecture and journals, cloud-based software has kept them going. “It’s amazing that we can design buildings this way,” architect Brian Phillips, director of ISA in Philadelphia, told me. Normally, his team would stick drawings on a wall, hold standing meetings to critique the design, then return to their computers to produce a revised version of the building. Now they’re getting the same results with Slack, Go-To-Meeting, and other fast messaging programs.

Counter this success with the extreme measures necessary to allow people to work together in an open plan office.

Desks are by nature giant petri dishes for germs. While nowhere as bad as meat packing plants, where cutters work shoulder to shoulder, “any enclosed environment, with poor air circulation and high density of people, is problematic,” Erin Bromage , professor of biology and immunology. at the University of Massachusetts, wrote last week in a widely read blog post. To make these germinal spaces reasonably safe, companies will need to bring in specialist teams to disinfect at least once a day, maybe more , said Joseph Gyourko, a Wharton School Economist, it’s a big expense.

But first, companies will have to find a way to relocate returning workers. The need for social distancing means employees can no longer be crammed into tiny offices the size of a placemat. “The hotel business” – the practice of sharing offices – “is dead,” said Lauren Gilchrist, director of research in Philadelphia for JLL, a commercial real estate broker. “I wouldn’t be comfortable walking into a hotel resort and wiping it down every day.”

Even in offices where employees toil in the relative luxury of their own cubicles, the overall population will still need to be de-densified, according to Philadelphia architect John B. Campbell of FCA, who designs corporate interiors. Seven years ago, when companies started embracing collaborative workspaces, Campbell’s company helped create GSK’s cabinless offices at Navy Yard. People were encouraged to sit where they wanted. Now, he thinks, “we can go back to the old-fashioned office.”

But not on the same day. For many companies, the only way to limit dangerous encounters will be staggered work schedules or alternate work days. “Instead of refusing to work in the office, we will participate,” predicts Campbell. “Those who wish to enter will need to register for specific days and times. When the number reaches 50% of the capacity, no one else can enter. The new desks Campbell is considering could be set up on wheels, so people can pull them apart. They will certainly have sneezing guards, or high partitions, to separate workers.

We’re probably getting ahead of the curve when it comes to redesigning office furniture. The real challenge of reopening offices begins before anyone touches a newly installed antimicrobial doorknob.

Many parents, especially those with young children, are eager to regain the relative calm of the office. But they cannot be freed from the chaos at home until schools and daycares resume operations. And these hot spots are expected to be among the last public places to reopen.

While large companies may be able to handle the logistics needed for sanitation and segregation, they may not help employees feel safe traveling to work in transit. “Until there is a viable vaccine, why should I take SEPTA? Asked Gyourko, who used to take Regional Rail to his Penn office. Some commuters may compromise by arranging carpools, a practice that will be enabled by matchmaking services on apps like Waze.

Yet the scariest part of the trip remains: the glove between the building lobby and the office reception. Some building managers will impose temperature checks before letting employees swipe their security cards. But once the elevator door opens, will anyone share the ride with strangers? And who presses the button? A few of Philadelphia’s newer skyscrapers have contactless destination tablets activated by swiping a card, but most don’t.

Then there is the toilet.

“We still don’t know if a person is releasing infectious material in their stool or just a fragmented virus, but we do know that flushing the toilet aerosolizes a lot of droplets,” Bromage wrote in his blog post.

Enough said.

None of these concerns seem to have dampened the enthusiasm of Philadelphia office developers. Parkway Corp. Still plans to open an 18-story building on 23rd and Market for Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a law firm this summer, said Brian Berson, who is overseeing construction. The building was designed with a high quality air handling system, but Parkway can bolster it with HEPA filters to remove microscopic particles. The company is also considering installing ultraviolet lights in the ducts to kill germs. These same techniques can be replicated in existing offices, although both are expensive.

Berson remains convinced that large companies will always want employees to be together in one place. “It is true that everyone does their job with more success than expected,” he admitted. “But there is very little innovation, creativity or aspiration. When you’re together in an office you say, “Hey, let’s see how we can do better. “

Tanya Seaman, who helped launch PhillyCarShare and now works for a climate advocacy group, agrees. She is desperate to return to the office. “I miss my colleagues,” she said. “As an hourly consultant, I get more work done when I interact with them. “

Yet despite their optimism, the trend seems to be going the other way. Just this week, Twitter announced that it would allow almost all of its employees to work from home even after the virus was gone.

The death of the office building was certainly predicted before, especially after September 11. Instead, city centers have exploded.

But that was 20 years ago – before the iPhone, before our work moved to the cloud, before Zoom. “I would never go back to the office if my employer would let me,” said Eugene Desyatnik, a Bella Vista resident who takes a two-hour round trip by bus to his technical job in the King of Prussia.

“FAQ: Your questions about coronaviruses, answers.

Given the choice between upgrading their offices with expensive security features or allowing employees to work from home, it’s a safe bet that many companies will choose the latter option.

But if working from home becomes the norm, the costs of maintaining and renting offices will be passed on from the company to the employees. Will management compensate them to provide their own workplace, or will they just pocket the savings?

Matusky is already putting together a checklist of essential office equipment, in case he decides to downsize. The heart of its operation is a state-of-the-art television studio where employees produce videos and help prepare clients for media interviews. That’s fine, said Matusky, but “everyone is going to be able to install the same thing at home soon.”