A recent article in The New York Times described how building designers and facility planners are hoping to make open-plan offices safe in the post-pandemic era. Essentially, they're hoping to keep the basic open-plan office design but with a little more elbow room. The goal would be
"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."
This is ludicrous. The six-foot rule is intended for people in public areas, like grocery stores, so that you keep your distance while transiting from one safe area (like your car or your home) to another. Social distancing is useless in an office where you end up sitting in the same place for hours on end.
And all it takes to make an entire open-plan office area unsafe and unsanitary is for one worker to sneeze. LiveScience magazine explains:
"The average human cough would fill about three-quarters of a two-liter soda bottle with air -- air that shoots out of the lungs in a jet several feet long. Coughs also force out thousands of tiny droplets of saliva. About 3,000 droplets are expelled in a single cough, and some of them fly out of the mouth at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour."
A single sneeze thus spreads droplets throughout an entire open office area. In addition to remaining suspended in air, the droplets settle on every surface, including keyboards, notoriously difficult to clean. The only way to keep such an open-plan office safe would be to clear the entire office of personnel and then clean every surface.
Office designers and architects have known for decades that open-plan offices spread disease. They just didn't care. Open-plan offices emerged from the same corporate mentality as the "work till you drop" ethos that discourages sick days and vacations. Management decided to sacrifice employee health on the altar of "collaboration." Now that sin has come home to roost.
So, no, it won't be enough to spread the employees out a little more, because the open-plan office is fatally flawed. Office designers, and the executives who hired them, gambled that the benefits of the open-plan office were worth the easy spread of colds and the flu. It was a bad idea then -- open-plan offices don't save money and decrease productivity -- and it's an even worse idea now.
The only way to make an open-plan office safe is to build barriers between workers -- i.e., to make it something other than an open-plan office. That means either returning to private offices or, at the very least, installing high barrier cubicles. The open-plan office was always a stupid management fad. In the post-pandemic era, these workplaces are neither viable nor salvageable.