How can Alaskans go back to the office, and what’s lost if we don’t?

An empty cubicle in 2013 in the State Office Building in Juneau. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

Some experts predict this pandemic will end the office as we know it. If so, the impact could be huge on a place like The Boardroom, a co-working space in downtown Anchorage.

The whole idea of co-working – sharing office space with strangers – may seem out of step in the age of social distancing. But Boardroom founder Katherine Jernstrom is adapting with the times, with more frequent cleaning and ensuring there are fewer people per square foot.

“We’re in the process of rolling out a density tracker … so that our members can log in and see how many people are using the space before making a decision about coming in,” she said.

Offices and organizations across Alaska are considering how to re-open and allow their staff to return to their desks without unnecessary exposure to the coronavirus. They’ve got guidelines from all levels of government, and the principles are the same rules we’ve all heard: People should keep at least six feet apart. Stay home if you’re sick. Masks reduce the risk of transmission. But how the rules apply to specific people and places – that presents big questions, and tons of little technical ones.

Kirk Rose directs the Anchorage Community Land Trust. His non-profit owns an office building in Mountain View that houses other non-profits. Each tenant organization is working on its own policy for an eventual return. Rose says differences have emerged that present questions not just of hygiene but of values.

“If you have, say, a separate office,” Rose said, “and there’s some in the office who are in cubicles closer together, how is it fair if one person doesn’t have to wear a mask and others do?”

They’re also discussing how to manage the common areas – elevators, hallways, and bathrooms.

“What happens when there’s three people in the bathroom – and potentially we can all agree that we don’t want that – so how do we limit people coming in and out of a restroom so that there will be one or two or one at a time? Those are the communication questions we’ve been working out,” Rose said.

Some of the tenants are worried about indoor air. Rose is trying to get a high quality air filter, the kind that hospitals use. But air filtration is a big concern nationwide and Rose is not the only one trying to obtain one.

“We’re hoping that six weeks from now we might have this kind of air filter that’s an upgrade but we, like everyone else, are in line for these products across the country,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends increasing office ventilation, through windows or by adjusting the intake of the building’s air system. Research is scarce, though, on whether the coronavirus is actually spread through a building’s heating and cooling system.

Lynne Curry, a consultant who writes a column for the Anchorage Daily News, says employers should consider taking their workers’ temperatures as they come to work. That might’ve seemed too invasive just a few months ago, but Curry says laws and norms are changing.

“Employers who see somebody who appears sick or having symptoms, they absolutely can send them home,” said Curry, whose firm is called Communication Works Inc. “And that is quite different than pre-Coronavirus.”

Rose said he thinks the eight staffers of Anchorage Community Land Trust will eventually return to the office, but for now they are functioning fine from home.

“What we lose is a little bit of camaraderie, a little bit of esprit de corps. And that sacrifice is not small,” he said. “It’s a meaningful one. But the safety of the team obviously comes first.”

If the experts are right, some office buildings won’t return to their pre-pandemic capacity. Some people may be working from home from now on.

Jernstrom, at The Boardroom, said she thinks co-working spaces can supply the one of the missing pieces for those who toil alone and by Zoom: Water-cooler chatter.

She feels the need herself these days.

“I very much plan who I’m going to talk to, because everything has to be planned. I don’t run into anyone anymore,” she said. “And so I think that that is the piece that won’t go away: People’s kind of need and desire to be around other people and learn in spontaneous ways.”

She sees her business as supporting people who work from home, so she thinks the decline of the traditional office may be good for The Boardroom.

Consider how people without offices used to get their water-cooler fix.

In the old days, like back in January, some workers chose to take their laptops to coffee shops. Now, Jernstrom says, some of them may be more comfortable spending their working hours in a place like hers, where they know every person has signed an agreement to abide by certain rules of hygiene and distance.

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