Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Safety costs, digitization and flexibility — a top consultant outlines what American workplaces may look like in the age of coronavirus.

Why it matters: As states gradually reopen, businesses will need to decide how much work can continue remotely, how much needs to be done in a workplace — and how those workplaces will need to be adapted.

What's happening: This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released sweeping new guidelines for office buildings reopening in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The recommendations include ubiquitous face coverings, keeping desks six feet apart (or separated by plastic shields) and limiting the use of elevators.

  • PwC U.S. Chairman Tim Ryan had already been thinking about how work will change during and after the pandemic, both for his own company of more than 250,000 employees and for his clients. I spoke with him about how companies can prepare for the coming changes.

1. Focus on workers, not real estate bills: With companies like Twitter talking about going permanently remote, there will be a temptation for CEOs to cut costs by cutting real estate. But Ryan says that "while you can get good returns on cost savings, it's better to have happier employees. The biggest mistake anyone can make is assuming a one-size-fits-all response will work."

2. Safety will be a cost of doing business: Just as factories have had to build in the cost of keeping workers safe in dangerous occupations, now ordinary offices will need to budget for infection prevention. "The cost is absolutely going to go up," he says.

  • At the same time, companies that show they're willing to go the extra mile to protect their workers will benefit in the competition for talent.

3. The future of work won't resemble the past — or the present: Everyone is in a race to either return to normal or declare a new one. But Ryan cautions that major shifts in workplace policies shouldn't be made in the heat of a pandemic or during the temporary honeymoon of remote work.

  • "I know work won't look like it did 12 weeks ago, and it won't look like it does today," he says.

Go deeper: When going back to work isn't safe

Go deeper

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Medical workers processing coronavirus tests on July 11 in Ahmedabad. Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP via Getty Images

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Why it matters: Roughly four months ago, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a national lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus, hoping to avoid the large-scale crisis it's now experiencing.