Big companies are redesigning their offices in response to COVID-19, and it might mean smaller cafeterias and the end of traditional coffee machines

Women using WhatsApp in coffee shop
The “coffee break” in the office was a moment for employees to interact with one another and have a moment of rest.

  • WeWork says its London offices will have touchless coffee machines that work by scanning a QR code.
  • This change along with others from top firms could transform the office experience as we know it.
  • The tech firm Drift is axing individual desks, while the finance giant KPMG may cut office space.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The commercial real-estate firm WeWork is planning to introduce touch-free coffee machines in all its offices across London. To use the machines, people working in WeWork offices would download a smartphone app and scan a QR code on the coffee machine.

The flexible-workspace firm did not elaborate on the date when the touchless machines would be installed, but WeWork said it would most likely introduce them soon.

With the coronavirus pandemic forcing everyone to keep to themselves and sanitize objects before and after touching them, this could mean fewer colleagues feeling inclined to make coffees for other staff members.

Businesses across the world had no choice but to adapt to a new way of working when the coronavirus pandemic made it dangerous for households to mix indoors.

With companies preparing for a return to offices, many workers are likely to notice changes when they come back.

Routine use of disinfectants to fight the coronavirus is mostly unnecessary, as the risk of transmission through touching surfaces is “low,” the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in April.

In a science brief based on analysis of the latest available data, the agency said intense cleaning was needed in only a few scenarios.

This news could bring an end to what some refer to as “hygiene theater,” or routine deep cleaning of hotel rooms, business premises, and public transport. Such measures might appear reassuring but are costly and, it seems, of limited use.

Despite this, Mathieu Proust, a general manager at WeWork in the UK, told Insider that as well as having touchless coffee machines, the London offices would also have motion-sensitive doors, where people move their hand in front of a button without touching it to open a door.

He said there would be no structural change to WeWork offices and added there would be increased sanitation in the buildings and signs telling people to wear masks and dictating what they could touch.

The purpose of the office is changing

WeWork is introducing an unusual hybrid model in the UK in which its employees work three days in the company’s headquarters, one day in a WeWork location, and one day at home.

Proust told Insider the company had changed the design of its space to create more room for teamwork and social interaction, rather than solo work.

One of WeWork's collaboration hubs in London
A WeWork collaboration hub in London.

“The purpose of the office is changing,” he said. “It’s about collaboration, connection, and creating more company culture.”

These so-called collaboration hubs have lots of whiteboards, more sofas, and fewer desks, according to Proust.

Collaboration spaces where people can be face-to-face with one another are “the best way to use office space,” according to Anita Williams Woolley, an associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University.

Woolley, who has spoken with companies about their return-to-office plans, said many were getting rid of permanent desk assignments because they were shrinking their office footprint. She also said some were downsizing the cafeterias and other sharing facilities in the workplace because “it doesn’t make sense to have them.”

A WeWork collaboration hub in London
A WeWork collaboration hub in London.

WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani said at the Wall Street Journal Future of Everything conference that employers wanted open-plan offices because they could keep them cleaner and they offered better ventilation.

“If you want to collaborate, you have to create an office environment,” Mathrani said.

These office-plan changes can also be seen in the tech and finance sectors.

The artificial-intelligence-powered sales software startup Drift, based in Boston, is throwing out individual desks and converting its offices into collaboration spaces. The company’s CEO and founder, David Cancel, told Insider the company had taken all of the desks and personal belongings out of the conference rooms and made them into spaces where people could gather.

“It will probably mean we’ll need less space over time,” Cancel said.

The insurance marketplace Lloyd’s of London also told Insider it would adopt a more-flexible working model with employees using the offices for when they needed to “collaborate or innovate.” Staff members will “conduct focused work remotely,” the firm said.

Cutting down on office space

Other companies are taking a more drastic option and giving up their office space as employees prepare to work from home in the future.

Some finance giants that have introduced a hybrid working model are reconsidering what the dozens of office floors are used for in the company.

The accounting and professional-services firm KPMG is redesigning its offices and may ultimately cut down on the amount of office space, said Kevin Hogarth, KPMG UK’s chief people officer.

Hogarth told Insider the company was reconfiguring its offices to create space for collaboration, learning, imagination, and team building. The workplace will be less orientated toward work that can easily be done at home, he said.

KPMG is planning a £44 million, or $62 million, program to invest in its office estate and technology, Hogarth said. “That’s because the nature of the office is going to change,” he said.

“I think it’s probably likely that over time we will see a reduction in the amount of office space that we need,” Hogarth said, adding that the company was focusing on creating the right environment for its staff.

Lloyds Banking Group is also planning to cut its office space by 20% over the next two years, The Guardian reported in April. An employee survey revealed 77% of Lloyds’ 68,000-person workforce said they wanted to work from home at least three days a week.

HSBC is taking another approach – it’s scrapping its executive floor offices and moving top managers down to “hot-desk” on a floor with other employees. The floors have turned into client meeting spaces.

Justin Small, the CEO and founder of the consultancy and advisory firm Future Strategy Club, told Insider the pandemic had evened out the office hierarchy. He said having executives five floors up from other employees was “ridiculous” and “old-fashioned.”

Hybrid working means companies won’t need the same size office, Small said, adding that where employees sit and work had become “irrelevant.”

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