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The Practice Management Knowledge Community (PMKC) identifies and develops information on the business of architecture for use by the profession to maintain and improve the quality of the professional and business environment.  The PMKC initiates programs, provides content and serves as a resource to other knowledge communities, and acts as experts on AIA Institute programs and policies that pertain to a wide variety of business practices and trends.

The return to offices

By Ann Casso Hon. AIA posted 05-04-2021 09:07 PM


By Ann Casso, Hon. AIA

This article is excerpted from a series, the AIA Trust Firm Management Strategies Series, published October 2020 to

“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence—it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” —Peter Drucker


The current pandemic and resulting economic contraction are reminiscent of the 2008 recession even if for entirely different reasons. While many maintain that the economy is strong because the stock market is strong, many small businesses are either already in tatters or staring down a bleak financial future.

Interviews were conducted with six AIA member firm owners from across the country with firms of varying size and types of practice. Overall, architectural firms of all sizes are facing this unknown but increasingly fragile financial fate as current projects are winding up, competition for new projects has fiercely increased, and projects “in the pipeline” are either drying up, scaling down, or vanishing entirely.

Returning to the office for most firms now means focusing on needed flexibility to meet their workers’ varied home situations with employee safety being paramount. There are also considerations for travel whether locally to job sites or across country for various meetings. Some real concerns about liability issues resulting from potential employee infection and transmission were expressed. All firms are thinking through their existing and needed policies, addressing state and federal regulations, alleviating office hazards, and identifying various employee issues including public transportation safety and childcare/education.

Report: Reopening the World's Workplaces

CBRE Group, Inc., the largest commercial real estate services company in the world, recently published a report entitled Reopening the World’s Workplaces that outlines a response-to-recovery process for those managing workspaces. Key is establishing a centralized, multidisciplinary task force involving essential stakeholders to plan and oversee recovery efforts across the spectrum of job functions. Their recommended process includes defining business requirements and work arrangements as well as procurement and financial considerations to evaluate potential alternatives and solutions with a goal to revise workplace strategies in a balanced manner that considers business needs. The report identifies preliminary recommendations for facility readiness criteria as well as reconfiguration of workspaces.

Large firm responses

Several large firms interviewed for this article remain open to remote working. Their philosophy is based upon individual choice as key with safety first—along with a focus on rebuilding the culture of the firm and on social responsibility.  In two cases, because the firms straddle more than one state and more than one set of state regulations, they are following the stricter of the state regulations for multiple locations, evaluating how to implement needed protocols and requirements, and developing workable frameworks that makes sense for their firms, recognizing the investment of time and resources required. 

Nonetheless, for the longer term, these firms are addressing questions about reentry that include: taking employee temperatures and self-screening, plexiglass shields and desk arrangements, face shields for employees, guidelines and signage, office cleaning, and changes to restrooms, common areas, and HVAC systems.

Small firm responses

Some of the smaller firms interviewed also continue to manage well through the pandemic by working from home and making a return to office voluntary. The loss of collaboration is an ongoing concern and most hold daily virtual staff meetings or check-ins via Zoom or other teleconference platforms – as well as having project managers check in with their respective staff daily. This avoids someone wasting time heading down the wrong track and substitutes for those frequent in-person meetings they used to have in their offices.

One small firm has updated their Covid-19 policy regarding exposure and testing—if exposed to the virus or testing positive they must remain at home to self-monitor and seek healthcare as needed. Additionally, they plan to close the office for two days for exposure to sanitize—and for seven days if an employee tests positive. They have not yet identified any CDC guidelines on third-party exposure; however, they implemented a policy based on their PEO’s recommendation (see appendix 1, below).

The firm cleans the office weekly and maintain flexibility for staff with a mixture of home and office workers based on individual discretion. The principal has moved her office into a small conference room since her children are back in school with greater exposure. The firm has a standing sign-in for any visitors to the office. They also maintain an increased expectation of communication and conduct a daily “check in”.  Their PEO assists with their HR-related tasks including finalizing their employee handbook. They found that their local chamber of commerce has a useful resource page which served as the foundation for their back-to-work process.

Another small firm of five people has sufficient space to have everyone report to the office. A sanitation station with supplies is maintained. They offer some flexibility for those employees dealing with childcare issues.

Given the situation in NYC, considering when to return to the office will be tricky for a small firm located there, and they need to have some flexibility for those who must commute via the subway. Since they do not currently have staff with young children, the distance learning and childcare issues are not at issue. 

Offices, job sites, and travel

For reentry, one medium-sized firm is ready with 12-foot areas to maintain distance between staff and utilizing a satellite office. The firm has also upgraded the mechanical systems adding ionization and regular air filtration as well as installing guards between desks.

Most firm policies restrict visiting a job site to only when necessary to be seen in-person and wearing a mask; otherwise, staff conduct meetings remotely. Most firms are not allowing plane travel for employees and even once restarted, most anticipate requiring up to a 14-day quarantine before returning to the office.

What has been extremely helpful in guiding one firm through this process is holding informal calls with other firms in their city to share what’s going on, discuss the effects of working from home as well as issues of isolation and depression, especially among single employees.

Recommended resources

A recent article by Perkins & Will, The Post-COVID Office, discusses how to design workspaces for greater health and wellness. It finds that planning for and integrating elements of successfully returning to offices pose both challenges and opportunities for change leaders. As employees call for greater long-term flexibility between in-office work and remote work, tracking results rather than hours will become the best way to measure productivity. 

Another recent survey conducted by the Cameron MacAllister Group of seventy-five design firm principals from a majority of architecture or A/E firms explored firms’ perspectives about how the new circumstances and changes brought on by the pandemic are impacting their firms. They found that nearly 70 percent of participating firms discovered staff productivity was unchanged or even increased with remote work and the primary concern was the lack of spontaneous employee interaction. They also found that there was little effect on firms’ client communications.

The survey also indicated that most firm leaders now view remote work much more favorably than before the pandemic “shutdown” which may suggest wider acceptance of remote work in the future. In addition, most firms expect to reduce office space and related overhead due to both remote working and the revenue downturn. Most firms surveyed avoided staff layoffs or furloughs into spring while some still had significant reductions.

A recent White Paper: COVID-19 Impacts to the Workplace published by Bala Consulting Engineers, a multi-disciplined engineering design organization providing services since 1982, explores the many challenges about a return to the workplace to ensure appropriate precautionary steps well into the future. Their paper discusses HVAC solutions in detail including filtration and ionization issues along with UVC light, pressurization, air flow, humidification, and air purification among others. Plumbing and technology solutions are also discussed in some detail. Importantly, necessary precautions including various alternatives for controlled access to and separation within the workplace, PPE and cleaning protocols are presented.

ASHRAE, a global professional society committed to serve humanity by advancing the arts and sciences of heating ventilation, air conditioning, refrigeration and their allied fields, published a news release in May 2020 discussing outcomes of their Epidemic Task Force which developed guidance on mitigating potential health risks during reopening of buildings closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. It includes numerous links to more details about water systems, filtration, transportation, occupancy guide, building readiness and more.


Overall, every firm and study agree that challenges abound when considering a return to office space and given the many unknowns about the Covid-19 virus, may be ever-changing well into the future. Concerted planning that considers all factors within an office and the complexity of human lives and needs as well as business needs and requirements with flexibility and reexamination built in is the best route to proceed for now.



Ann Casso is the Executive Director of the AIA Trust for more than 18 years. She previously managed membership, member services, and marketing operations at three national associations including the AIA. She holds a master’s degree in Organizational Development.

(Return to the cover of the May 2021 PM Digest)


Appendix 1

July 1, 2020: Recommendations Regarding Employee Exposure:

  • If an employee is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 infection and it has been less than 7 days since the sick employee has been in the facility: 
    1. Close off any areas used for prolonged periods of time by the sick employee.
    2. Wait 24 hours before cleaning and disinfecting to minimize potential for other employees being exposed to respiratory droplets. During this waiting period, open outside doors and windows to increase air circulation in these areas.
    3. Cleaning staff should clean and disinfect all areas such as offices, bathrooms, common areas, shared electronic equipment (like tablets, touch screens, keyboards, remote controls, and ATM machines) used by the ill persons, focusing especially on frequently touched surfaces.
    4. If it has been 7 days or more since the sick employee used the facility, additional cleaning and disinfection is not necessary. Continue routinely cleaning and disinfecting all high-touch surfaces in the facility.
      • Direct Contact of Positive and Identifiable COVID-19 – Office Closure of 48 hours
      • Indirect Contact (2 off) of Positive COVID-19 – notify Supervisor immediately
  • Determine which employees may have been exposed to the virus and advise of need to take additional precautions:
    1. Inform employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality
    2. Ask infected staff member to identify all individuals who worked in close proximity (within six feet) for a prolonged period of time (10 minutes or more to 30 minutes or more depending upon particular circumstances, such as how close the employees worked and whether they shared tools or other items) with them during the 48- hours period before the onset of symptoms.
    3. Follow the Public Health Recommendations for Community-Related Exposure and instruct potentially exposed employees to stay home for 14 days, telework if possible, and self-monitor for symptoms.

We would recommend advising your staff that an employee had a 3rd party exposure.  Allow any staff who may want to work from home to do so.  Tell them to continue to monitor themselves and follow your current guidelines for working onsite.  Let them know you are monitoring the situation and will update them as you learn more.

Regarding returning to work for persons who have symptoms, here are the most recent recommendations:

  • Option 1: If, in consultation with a healthcare provider and local public health authorities knowledgeable about locally available testing resources, it is determined the employee will be tested to determine if the employee is still contagious, the employee can leave home after these three conditions have been met:
    • The employee no longer has a fever (without the use of medicine that reduces fevers)
    • respiratory symptoms have improved (for example, cough or shortness of breath have improved)
    • they received two negative tests in a row, at least 24 hours apart.  
  • Option 2: If, in consultation with a healthcare provider and local public health authorities knowledgeable about locally available testing resources, it is determined an employee will not have a test to determine if they are still contagious, the employee can leave home and return to work after these three conditions have been met:
    • The employee has had no fever for at least 72 hours (that is, 3 full days of no fever without the use medicine that reduces fevers)
    • respiratory symptoms have improved for at least 72 hours (for example, cough or shortness of breath have improved)
    • at least 14 days have passed since their symptoms first appeared