Commercial Real Estate, Clutch Report

Will the Traditional Office Survive the COVID-19 Pandemic?

September 9, 2020

by Shelby Jordan

The spread of the coronavirus challenged the definition of the traditional office, forcing companies to confront a future of remote work to ensure employee safety. Our survey of 400 workers reveals that more than half of the U.S. workforce (55%) would feel safe returning to their office, but additional interviews suggest that the benefits of working from home outweigh the advantages of traditional in-office culture for some employees.

You can trace office culture back to Ancient Rome. 

Leaders in politics and religion would gather at a forum at the center of the city for meetings, discussions, and announcements — like your team’s weekly stand-up. 

But when the Roman Empire fell, so did its office buildings. 

Fast forward to the 18th century. The East India House in the U.K. was an early example of today’s mega-corporations. Thousands of workers benefited from lavish interiors and company perks, but they also reported monotonous work days, long hours, and minimal vacation. 

Skyscrapers were a game-changer in the late 1800s. Workers were packed into floors and seated at desks side-by-side — the birth of the open floor plan. 

That trend was replaced in the 1960s by Bürolandschaft, a German concept that favored interactive work environments, desks arranged informally, and a lot of plants to create healthier conditions for employees. 

We’ve evolved in the years since, building on these concepts to create new trends like cubicles, activity-based working layouts, co-working spaces, and many more

Visual timeline of office trends from Ancient Rome to present.

Will the COVID-19 pandemic trigger the next major shift in office culture? 

This year, many companies were forced to confront a future of remote work. 

In a recent report, Clutch found that while 39% of employees have gone back to their office, the rest of the workforce is split on its preferred timeline for returning.

We expected safety concerns to be the top reason employees would want to continue working remotely, but new survey data reveals this might not be the case. 

We found that the majority of the U.S. workforce (55%) feels safe going back to its office space, but outside factors — like more flexibility or time with family — are pushing some employees to choose remote work over the traditional office environment.

Our Findings

  • The majority of employees (55%) would feel safe working from their office at this point in the pandemic, and only 32% would feel unsafe — the rest fall in the middle. 
  • More than 80% of the U.S. workforce (82%) is comfortable commuting to work safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes sense given that 84% of employees drive to work alone. 
  • Nearly 75% of employees agree that private office spaces are the safest office layout, but only 1 in 5 have that option. Today’s most popular floor plan is a mixed office space (42%) that combines private spaces with communal areas.
  • While 73% of employees with private office spaces would return to work, numbers drop drastically for those returning to open floor plans (46%), cubicles (49%), or mixed spaces (52%).
  • Employees in different locations have varied perceptions about how safe it is to go back to their office. The majority of Midwestern workers (64%) would feel safe, followed by Southern employees (56%), Western employees (45%), and Northeastern employees (36%).
  • Even though older age groups are more susceptible to the virus, 59% of workers over 55 would still feel safe returning to work, which is nearly equal to the 35–55 age group (53%), and the under-35 age group (53%).

Employees Feel Safe Commuting to Work — Probably Because 8 in 10 Drive Alone

The public transportation industry took a hard hit as COVID-19 spread across the country, but our data shows that disruptions were minimal for a majority of the U.S. workforce.

Eighty-four percent (84%) of employees across the country drove to work alone in their own car before the pandemic, and only 4% relied on public transportation. The rest of the workforce either carpooled, walked, biked, or traveled in other ways. 

84% of U.S. workers drive to work

With single-car commutes the most common way of getting to and from the office, it’s no shock that 82% of workers feel comfortable returning to work safely. 

Patrick Garde, technical director at SEO firm ExaWeb Corporation, used a private car to get to his office before his company went remote in mid-March.

“I feel safe getting to work using my car,” he said, but he explained that he would feel differently if he relied on public transportation and was exposed to other commuters daily. 

On the other hand, Carol Li, co-founder of online fax solution provider Cocofax, previously preferred public transportation because she only lived two metro stops away from her office. 

While Li feels somewhat safe on public transportation given her age, she still opted to change her commute.

“I prefer biking or driving myself to work to avoid contact with potential COVID-19 carriers,” she said. 

Now, six months into the pandemic, public transit is beginning to ramp back up, but there is still risk involved. Stations and trains are being cleaned more frequently, but masks and hand sanitizer are still a must. Employers are also allowing more flexible work days to avoid peak commuting times. 

As safety improves on public transit, however, accounts from employees like Garde and Li make it clear most people have found driving themselves to work a safe and accessible alternative. 

If personal safety concerns aren’t stopping workers from commuting, what is pushing big-name organizations to consider a future of remote work?

Garde highlights one potential reason — more time. 

“I’m starting a family and working remotely will make sure I’m able to be a hands-on father to my daughter,” he said.

“I’m starting a family and working remotely will make sure I’m able to be a hands-on father to my daughter.”

For working parents like Garde, the benefits of not commuting to and from work outweigh the desire for an in-office environment.

Private Offices Rank First for Safety, But the Majority of Workers Don’t Have That Choice

COVID-19 shifted the conversation about what makes a good, productive office space.

If you were working with a commercial real estate firm or designing an office earlier this year, you were probably looking for comfortable chairs and couches, deciding on an aesthetic that matches your brand, strategically placing workspaces to facilitate collaboration or individual tasks, or searching for technology solutions that help you control your work environment.

Now, office safety is top of mind for over 90% of employers preparing for their staff to return to the office. Common questions are:

  • How can we rearrange seating so the team feels comfortable and safe?
  • Where can we install sanitation stations?
  • How do we regulate common spaces, elevators, and bathrooms?

We asked U.S. employees to describe the safest possible floor plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and nearly 75% agree that private offices are the best option (73%). 

However, only 1 in 5 workers have an office to themselves. 

Only 1 in 5 workers have an office to themselves.

In today’s typical office, 42% of employees work out of a mixed office layout — one that combines private spaces with communal areas. The rest of employees are split nearly evenly between fully open floor plans (19%), cubicles (20%), and private offices (20%).

Additionally, our data shows that employees with the luxury of a private office feel drastically safer than employees returning to other floor plans. 

  • 73% would feel safe in a private office.
  • 52% would feel safe in a mixed space.
  • 49% would feel safe in a cubicle.
  • 46% would feel safe in an open floor plan.

Employees are most comfortable returning to work in private offices.

While private offices rank first, it is still important to note that nearly half of employees across all office types would still feel safe returning to their place of work as COVID-19 continues to spread.

Li described the Cocofax office’s pre-COVID-19 layout as a mix of cubicles and low partitions to facilitate collaboration, but things have changed in the past several months.

“We’ve totally transformed into a cubicle layout to minimize contact,” she said.

Similarly, SEO firm Hook Agency’s warehouse-style office has also changed. 

“We’ve spaced all of our desks six feet apart, aside from those in private offices,” said SEO Specialist Cody Warren. “It’s been a lot of work to stay diligent about office safety, but coming back to work was best for our team.”

Heinrich Long is part of a small team at Restore Privacy, and the Privacy Expert explains that he trusts his peers to respect the company’s safety guidelines.

“We’re moving some things around; we’re all going to wear masks, take our temperatures, and wash our hands obsessively until our skin is raw,” he said. 

It’s clear that employees trust both their company and peers to create and maintain a safe and comfortable environment, but for some, it’s hard to justify returning to the office now that they’ve found they can perform their role just as well at home. 

Jamie Irwin, an SEO Expert at Irwin Organic, an SEO provider, is happy that his organization is committed to protecting its employees, but he’d be all for continuing to work from home. 

“I would take full-time remote work in a heartbeat,” he said, explaining that his digital marketing role doesn’t always require in-person collaboration.

“I would take full-time remote work in a heartbeat.”

The pandemic challenged teams across the globe to find a way to work and collaborate outside the traditional office environment, and some — like Irwin — are hoping this new normal is here to stay. 

Location Influences Perception of Workplace Safety

While COVID-19 has  already run through most urban cities in the U.S., new tracking data shows that cases in rural areas are now on the rise. 

Even so, companies across the country are still planning to reopen offices for their employees.

Because local responses to the spread of the virus varied, it’s not surprising that each region has a different level of concern for its safety when it comes to returning to work. 

Over 60% of employees in the Midwest (64%) would feel safe working from their office in this stage of the pandemic — compared to 56% of Southern employees, 45% of Western employees, and 36% of Northeastern employees. 

Midwestern employees are more comfortable returning to work, followed by employees in the South, West, and Northeast.

This distribution makes sense given the ratio of urban to rural areas in each region — Midwestern and Southern states have spread-out landscapes compared to the dense populations of Northeastern and Western states.

However, at least one-third of the workforce in each region believes they can safely return to the office. 

Long, for example, lives and works in an urban city, and he’s admittedly cautious about going back to the office, but he likes to be near his peers. 

“I’ll brave the coronavirus just so I can interact with other human beings,” he said, explaining that he prefers being in an urban setting over a rural setting during the pandemic because it’s easier to meet with his team. 

“I’ll brave the coronavirus just so I can interact with other human beings.”

While in-person collaboration is drawing workers like Long back to the office despite safety concerns in their location, others would still prefer to sit comfortably in their home office. 

Irwin lives in a small suburban village, and works in an urban area, but safety was not his primary concern when asked to return to his office. 

“I feel very comfortable where I live,” he said. “I was very reluctant to return to work as my office reopened because all of my work duties can be done remotely.”

Location has a clear impact on employees' sense of safety going back to the office, but COVID-19 has helped workers across the country — like Irwin — realize that some positions don’t require a traditional office setting to be successful.

Baby Boomers Feel More Safe in Offices Than Millenials

News coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic implies that older generations are facing a series of tough decisions about returning to work as the virus continues to spread — some sources even suggest an early retirement

You’d expect workers over the age of 55 to be at least slightly more apprehensive about going back to their office jobs, but our data tells a different story:

  • 59% of workers over 55 would feel safe returning to work.
  • 53% of workers between 35 and 55 would feel safe returning to work.
  • 53% of workers under 35 would feel safe returning to work.

Older employees feel safest returning to work

While the percentage of employees in the over-55 age range measures just above the 35–55 and under-35 ranges, at least half of each age group would feel safe transitioning back to an in-office environment.

Li was born after 1990, and she welcomed the shift back to business-as-usual as a sign of positive progress.

“Being able to return to the office is definitely a cheerful thing amid bills, rent, utility fees, and child-education costs,” she said. 

Yaniv Masjedi, CMO at phone system company Nextiva, feels the same. 

“I’m not scared of returning to work because I trust my company to make decisions that will allow us to operate without sacrificing our health,” he said. 

“I’m not scared of returning to work because I trust my company to make decisions that will allow us to operate without sacrificing our health.”

In his 30s, Masjedi recognizes that workers in an older age range might feel differently given their increased susceptibility to the virus. 

Garde is also thinking of the age and safety of those around him when considering his stance on going back to the office.

“Although I’m still young, I believe that it’s not safe for me to return to work because of my 4-month-old daughter at home,” he said.

While the data reveals that age isn’t the most influential factor in an employee’s perception of personal safety in the office, insight from Masjedi and Garde suggest the age of those around them could factor into their decision. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only challenged companies to think more critically about their processes and policies but also challenged employees to consider their peers, friends, and family when returning to traditional office work.

COVID-19 Won’t Be the Fall of the Traditional Office

The pandemic highlighted some factors that suggest remote work will be a more popular and accepted alternative after COVID-19.

While almost all employees feel safe commuting to their office, working from home offers time back in their day to spend with friends and family or simply relax. 

Most workers in private offices feel safe going back to an in-office environment, but that luxury is not available to all. Even so, nearly half of employees in cubicles, open floor plans, and mixed layouts still feel safe returning to work. 
However, some workers have found their home office set-up just as comfortable and productive as their desk at company headquarters.

Urban cities and rural areas have faced different challenges in managing the spread of COVID-19, leaving some regions more prepared to return to work than others. But, employees across the country have recognized the benefits of working from home over working in a traditional office. 

It turns out that all age groups in the U.S. workforce have a consistent perception of safety in the office — more than half of each generation would feel safe returning to work. But, some employees are concerned about the ages of the co-workers, family, and friends around them. 

This isn’t to say that all safety concerns have been addressed and the U.S. workforce is ready for a future of remote work, it just highlights that some employees benefit from working from home due to COVID-19. 

This virus will not be the end of the traditional office as we know it, but it will make remote positions more accepted and accessible for employees even after the pandemic ends. 

About The Survey

Clutch surveyed 400 workers across the U.S. from July 2 to July 8, 2020. 

Thirty-five percent (35%) of respondents are from the Midwest; 35% are from the South; 25% are from the West, and 9% are from the Northeast. 

Of the respondents, 51% are male; 31% are female, and 18% chose not to disclose this information. 

Respondents are 18-24 (6%); 25-34 (12%); 35-44 (28%); 45-54 (14%); 55-64 (21%); and 65 and over (10%), while 19% chose not to disclose their age. 

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