A 15-minute cap on meetings, and lunches delivered to your desk: Perhaps a return to the office isn't so bad?

From elevator operators to boxed lunches and sensor-operated doors, life back at the office will feel very different.
Image: Coronavirus Pandemic Causes Climate Of Anxiety And Changing Routines In America
Larger companies mostly plan to phase in their workers' returns, replace buffet lunches with packaged options and avoid in-person meetings or keep them to strict time limits. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

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By Claire Atkinson

Working from home may have its fans, but employees returning to the office are wondering how it will all work. It turns out that getting people back to the office is going to be a whole lot harder than shipping them off home.

"I'm not particularly interested in sitting at my desk for eight hours wearing a mask. I think I might go crazy," said Kathryn Tuggle, editor-in-chief of a personal finance website. Tuggle used to share a desk at a coworking space in New York City with three colleagues before the COVID-19 pandemic closed the building. While she's looking forward to being back together, she said she will be much more cautious at the office about touching door handles and surfaces.

"Realistically, there will be more working from home on our team until 2021," Tuggle said.

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As lockdowns come to an end, large and small companies across the country are trying to figure out how to return their employees to safe working environments with confidence.

WeWork, which rents shared office space, told NBC News that it is in the process of "dedensification," or removing office furniture to allow for social distancing, for its 9 million square feet of office space.

For some companies, new layouts could involve separating desks by a screen, staggering workspaces or placing desk chairs so office workers are back to back, separated by cupboards or screens.

Global advertising giant Omnicom Group issued a set of guidelines that includes "minimizing the items you bring back and forth from home," such as laptops and headphones, and a ban on personal deliveries to the office. It also recommended setting a 15-minute cap on meetings.

Many office workers spent more time at work than at home, and desks were filled not just with computers but also plants, family photos and favorite coffee cups. The future may look a lot less intimate.

New York City-based tech company Squarespace has bought masks and contactless thermometers for staff members and is considering switching to boxed meals delivered to specific office "neighborhoods" to lessen mingling between floors and end communal eating.

"People will be asked to go to their 'neighborhood,' which would be a particular floor, and they'll have a single restroom on that floor, and there will be sanitizing and wipes for the desk. We won't have people using conference rooms," Chief People Officer Mary Good told NBC News.

"If we can keep people in their neighborhoods, then you also reduce the risk that if you do have someone who comes down with COVID-19 then the entire space has to be vacated," she said of the concept.

A recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll suggested that almost 6 in 10 American workers are worried about bringing coronavirus home to their families. Few companies are planning to return all their workers all at once.

JPMorgan Chief Executive Jamie Dimon said the banking giant plans to phase in workers' returns, moving less aggressively than local government rulings advise. The company may also phase out buffet lunches in favor of packaged options, according to a company memo.

At the New York Stock Exchange, which reopened Tuesday after a two-month hiatus, President Stacey Cunningham said only around 25 percent of people in the building were back on the main trading floor.

"Our floor brokers will return, though in smaller numbers at first, and will wear protective masks as they work. They will also follow strict social-distancing requirements, enforced by a new choreography that defines the space where each person may work on the floor," Cunningham wrote in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal announcing the changes.

Office restrooms, which will be disinfected more frequently with hospital-grade cleaning agents, may in some cases be reworked to accommodate just one person at a time with a key card.

When London's Canary Wharf, a financial hub, reopened in mid-May, around 10 percent of staff members were allowed to return. New safety measures included checkerboard desk patterns, sensor-operated doors and staff members to operate elevators and prevent crowding, according to Reuters. The building is also looking at one way-traffic and additional bike racks, with more commuting expected.

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Many white-collar workers spent more time at work than at home, and desks were filled not just with computers but also with plants, family photos, favorite coffee cups and drawers filled with sweaters and shoes. The future may look a lot less intimate.

"Management teams are realizing that they can function with 'hot desks' or 'hoteling' with reserved desks," HR executive Anthony Oland said.

Andi Owen, president and chief executive of Michigan-based Herman Miller, a global company that helps companies with design and office layout, said staff members are being given virtual tours of new workspace designs.

Returning to work can create a certain level anxiety, so one company is offering virtual tours of new workspace designs.

"Many of our folks left weeks ago, and they remember what their environment looked like when they left, so when they're thinking about coming back, it creates a certain level of anxiety," she told NBC News. "Taking photos of what we've done, whether it is hand-washing stations or PPE or separating out desks and creating pathways, that visual is really helpful."

The company's offices in China are still doing three temperature checks a day, and the rigid approach to safety and protocol there has been one of the most effective lessons when it comes to dealing with COVID-19, Owen said.

While an extraordinary amount of innovation has come from this new reality, employees say they will miss the fly-by conversations, lunches in the café and dinners out with colleagues.

"There's a certain amount of sadness, a little bit of what we've lost, too, and wondering how we are going to get across this chasm. I don't know when that will be or if that will be," Owen said.