Observations | (Re)Building the Workplace for COVID-19
As work teams slowly start heading back to the physical office, existing spaces are being rethought and reimagined for the new normal of working during a pandemic. The overarching goal for these projects is creating a safe environment. To this end, increased focus will be placed on reducing workplace density while maintaining collaboration and teaming spaces and without losing visually appealing and stimulating workspaces.
First, employees will want to know and feel the workplace is as safe as possible before returning. These fears should be eased at the entry points. In existing spaces, this can be as simple as adding sanitizing stations in the vestibules and lobbies for employees and guests to decontaminate. Signage clearly expressing face mask requirements, safe spacing, circulation routes, and rules for using common areas should be posted.
Facemask signage doesn’t need to be sterile. Consider fun, encouraging signage such as these posters by Noma Bar.
At a minimum, reception areas should include counter shields to protect both the receptionist and visitor. As an alternative or supplement to the traditional reception desk, digital check-in kiosks that can be wiped down and sanitized, such as those used in healthcare or airports, can minimize exposure for both building staff, workers, and visitors.
Common areas do not need to be eliminated, but instead rethought to include less seating with more space between. By adding motion and touchless sensor retrofits to doors and light switches, touchpoints can be minimized to ensure more safe movement throughout a space.
As the employee continues their way to their workplace, corridors will need to be expanded to six-foot widths, preferably with one-way traffic and rethought to avoid collisions. Signage in corridors should show direct routes to specific areas with high density areas easily identified. Cues such as arrows for circulation should be utilized.
The signage at the Jeweler's Building, home of Bailey Edward's Chicago office, has clear signage at every turn to ensure traffic flows in the same direction, avoiding congestion and collisions.
Office areas, especially those with benching will need to be addressed as these are typically the most densely populated. Each team member should have a six-foot diameter of personal space. If reworking the office layout is not feasible, employees' schedules may need to be staggered, alternating schedules between working in the office and working remotely. Additional short-term solutions can include desktop acrylic or felt screens and free-standing partitions to create a barrier between individual workstations. Visual cues such as a six-foot radius circle under the desk is another way to encourage distancing.
Otherwise, workstations can be reconfigured and common office furniture such as mobile marker boards or large monitors can be repurposed as physical barriers to minimize new the purchase of new protective furnishings. Another option, if space and budgets allow, is to provide more square footage for workstations instead of increasing cubicle and screen height. Additional hygiene stations should be placed throughout the office areas. Instead of open coat rooms, individual lockers can be added to provide assigned storage and keep employees’ personal belongings separated.
In public restrooms, use of hot air dryers should be eliminated. Care should be taken to prevent water from pooling on counters to reduce spread of germs. Touchless faucets and soap dispensers will be the new norm and can be easily retrofitted.
Throughout the entire office space, new finishes should be antimicrobial, easily and/or bleach cleanable. Copper finishes have been shown to have natural decontamination properties.
Retrofitting mechanical systems to limit recirculated air while ensuring maximum fresh air within a space will be crucial. Increased greenery will be incorporated to “clean” air in spaces. UV Sanitizing Light stations, like what is used in hospitals, can also be incorporated.
While collaborative stations and teaming areas such as conference rooms are a main reason for the employee to return to the office, they can be a hot spot for disease spread if not properly addressed. Conference rooms should minimize their occupancy and can do so easily by removing chairs to allow for proper spacing between participants. To discourage congregation outside of the conference room, these spaces should be scheduled electronically with a touchless screen or a simple sign-in sheet with nearby, both outside of the room, to indicate the conference room’s availability. Open collaborative teaming areas should be standing room only, possibly with furniture sturdy enough to lean on to encourage shorter face-to-face interactions. Even while in the office, it will be important to encourage conferencing via video calls or virtual meeting rooms to minimize disease spread.
Providing flexible technology solutions in the workplace is crucial to ensuring work continues uninterrupted, whether a company continues to work remotely or allows staff in the office full-time during the pandemic. Laptops with docking stations to large monitors allows staff an easy transition from home and back to the office without the need of additional software to access a non-mobile PC tower. Laptops also allow individual workstations to be sanitized and shared, allowing for more physical space for social distancing between employees currently in the office while others work from home.
Humans are social beings and crave being together. Many argue that in-person collaboration is better than virtual meetings while others will say employees have proved working remotely can be seamlessly achieved. Both are right in their own way and the answer will be a mix of attitudes and approaches. Ultimately, the workplace will transform, whether organically or systematically, to fulfill the needs of the business and the employee. As a decentralized workforce becomes more common, there will need to be safe choices for all approaches: a place to see others, a place to work more efficiently, and a place for collaboration. In summary, for employers who choose to bring the workforce back to the office again, they can do so safely by creating a safe environment through reduced density and increased flexibility of all spaces.
Ania Breau is an accomplished interior designer with a history of collaborating effectively with clients, the design team, and vendors to create better working environments. Her specialties include creating design scenarios and solutions for healthcare, commercial, and multi-family residential environments.