By Marbe H. Agee 

There have been a handful of events throughout history that have been a catalyst for change in commercial office design methodology. The pandemic of COVID-19 is certain to be historically recorded as one of those events. Understanding fundamental workplace needs will be key to implementing the right modifications in workplace design. This is evident as business leaders across the Wasatch Front grapple with planning a return to the office.

Leaders of over 25 Utah-based companies were asked for insight into how the design of their workplace would have been different had they known this health crisis was coming and if they have a plan in place for their physical operation once the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” directive is lifted, and what strategies should be considered for workplace design in the future.

To understand where workplace design is headed as a result of this pandemic, one must first look at how that design has supported or hindered the health and well-being of organizations and their employees during the crisis.

Density has been a key workplace strategy to maximize real estate and reduce costs for leased office space. Creating more densely populated open workstation floor plans has allowed organizations efficiency to carve out shared amenity spaces, a key driver for recruitment and retention. Decreasing the height of open workstation dividers allowed for increased collaboration and assurance of daylight and views. Benching desks and smaller open workstations averaging density for call centers at 125 square feet per-person and general office at 150 square feet per-person have been more common in the market and in hindsight may prove challenging upon return to the office for separation and social distancing to limit exposure.

Technology has been critical to conducting business through the pandemic. Many polled indicated they would have invested project funding into a more robust package to avoid the downtime and learning curve they have faced, adding video conferencing as standard in meeting rooms and converting to mobile workstations over PCs, for example.

For many organizations, the pandemic has helped transition to effectively working from home. Leaders find themselves asking, “Should there be some groups that don’t return to the office at all?” This has led leaders to question if decreased square footage could be considered. Or, if some staff do not return, would this be an opportunity to rethink current layouts, spreading workspaces out to increase to 200 square feet per-person?

In addition to rethinking layouts for the most efficient use of space, the post-pandemic workplace will need to put health and well-being at the center of the return to the office plan. Leaders expressed that they want their employees to feel safe. Many organizations are considering staggering staff in the office by instituting A and B workday scenarios, keeping conference and common spaces closed initially, using tape and signage to create a “one way” circulation path through the office, as well implementing education campaigns on how to be productively collaborate while social distancing to respect others’ personal space. Other plans include adding numerous sanitation stations, expanding janitorial service’s scope to be more frequent and intensive, and shifting to sustainable disposable kitchenware instead of reusable.

In addition to immediate strategies, we find ourselves asking how COVID-19 will affect the workplace of the future. Like the heightened security seen after 9/11, the pandemic will require a more focused attention on health and well-being strategies for the workplace. The most obvious of these strategies may lie in education for change in human behavior to be more aware of personal space. One of the most challenging for hardworking Utahns may be the paradigm shift to a culture encouraged to continue to stay home when sick, potentially longer as a practice after the crisis has passed.

Other design methodology that could be implemented for health and well-being may lie in building systems. Enhanced air filtration and the inclusion of “touchless” technology: automatic door-openers, button-free elevators, switchless fixtures and hands-free devices, for example. 

More care will be given to the selection of materials used with inherent antimicrobial properties for sterility. This is especially pertinent for the high-value common amenity spaces such as game rooms and large cafes that create opportunity for transmittance through multiple touches. As these types of spaces are another key space strategy for recruitment and retention, they will not go away, but be more robustly designed for cleanability.

While reducing square footage is appealing from a financial perspective, the ability to understand productivity for a remote workforce is equally impactful to the bottom line and we may see more technology with metrics to track the activity of remote workers.

The question remaining is how these changes will affect organizational culture. The workplace is intended to inspire and support an organization and its employees. If some of the workforce does not come back, how will the culture be maintained? If communication remains focused through the virtual lens, how does a company stay emotionally connected? The secret may lie within a combination of the lessons learned, the strategies being considered and embracing change — all with an eye toward furthering design to engage and delight, ensuring that employees, clients, visitors and those visiting virtually feel connected to the organization’s story and purpose. 

Marbe H. Agee is a principal over workplace with Method Studio in Salt Lake City where she has spent the past decade focused on creating workplace strategies that help clients become more efficient and productive in environments with maximum flexibility and enhanced collaboration.

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