COVID-19 BUSINESS RESOURCES (SPONSORED)
The current pandemic has forced us to redefine our work’s space, schedule, and processes. Bedrooms, living rooms, and unused corners of the basement have become our new offices. Kitchen counters, dining room tables, and pieces of plywood on sawhorses are our new desks. Our schedules have evolved as we try to rebalance work and family life without children heading to school. Even quick collaborations at the printer have been replaced with texts and Zoom meetings.
What does the workplace after COVID-19 look like? While returning to work still feels uncertain, we know the workplace won't be the same as the one we left. It will be critical for businesses to provide workspaces that support their employees’ new normal. This new workplace may include simple measures like new policies but also the redesign of existing spaces to support the new role businesses will play in keeping everyone safe yet efficient and engaged.
Any answer must also anticipate that the pandemic is a temporary situation regardless of how long quarantine and social distancing orders may exist. Like the polio epidemic of the 1950s or the measles prior to 1963, the scientific and healthcare communities are working to develop a vaccine to treat COVID-19 to ultimately render it a non-issue. The workplaces we return to will need to address the current needs as they relate COVID-19 while considering the longer lasting impacts.
Workplace spacing can be implemented with relative ease. Six feet has been determined as the closest we should come to other individuals. but the current practice of maximizing seats per floor area contrasts this. As has been the case around the world, it may be necessary to leave empty workstations between staff to ensure proper spacing is maintained. Offices, conference, break, and other gathering spaces also need a reduction in capacity. Ultimately, the new workplace will need to support significantly less staff.
Circulation paths will present a challenge. A socially distanced corridor will need 10’ to allow 2 people to pass. This is quite different from the typical 5- to 8’ corridor. In addition, circulation paths often infringe on adjacent workstations. One-way circulation paths would be strategy to allow for proper distancing.
Movement to and from enclosed spaces needs to be regulated. Spaces like conference rooms are often accessed by a single door and have limited internal circulation, forcing users into too-close proximity. Establishing and posting loading/unloading procedures can help to mitigate breakdowns in social distancing, such as dictating how users should enter, move through a space, and occupy seats (thus helping keep enclosed spaces safe).
Furniture-related solutions exist. Reposition workstations for staff to face away from one another. Offices with shared workstations or hoteling spaces may need to move to a dedicated workstation model to avoid lingering viruses on work surfaces. Several furniture manufacturers also produce screening devices to enclose individual workstations.
As we start thinking about the office environment long term, we need to figure out whether we even need physical office space. This pandemic has taught us that technology advances, broadband connections, and collaboration platforms allow us to be efficient and productive at home. Businesses need to evaluate the purposes of the future workplace (why do employees need to come to work?) and then the spaces required to support them (collaboration, productivity, technology). These answers can lead to repurposed office space, a decrease in the need for space, an increase in high-tech meeting spaces like Surface Hub, etc.
In recent years, the conversation surrounding health in the workplace has been dominated by work positions, such as designing stairs that encourage use, alignment with circadian rhythm, and connection to natural elements. Absent from the conversation, however, has been disease transmission and control. Healthcare design can help provide inspiration to the workplace.
Cleanability is the anchor principle in creating environments that inhibit the growth of bacteria. First, implementing simplified design languages helps to remove crevasses that can be difficult to clean. Simplified lines, controlled use of textiles, and limited use of tabletop accessories all help to create a workplace that can be cleaned with ease. The material selection is also critical. The best cleaning agents are also the harshest, requiring materials with increased durability to withstand intense cleaning practices. In addition, some materials naturally inhibit the growth of bacteria and should be selected for doorknobs and countertops. The design language is key to ensuring workplaces not only support the work that needs to be done but also creating an environment that supports staff health.
COVID-19 is the cause of the current situation; and while world health leaders are warning that these events will occur more rapidly, there are other events that will cause us to rethink how, where, and when we work. COVID-19 transmits in specific ways. It lives in the air and on various surfaces for specific times. The next crisis, whether it be health related or other, will have different conditions influencing our response. Creating environments that can quickly adapt will be important. For instance, if a disease only transmits through direct contact, would we shut down our offices or just rework them to eliminate contact? Would this be a policy solution or an architectural solution? Could a space like conference rooms and work cafés be converted to general workspace to decrease seating densities, then transition back after conditions improve? The uncertainty of the future calls for our workplaces to be agile, quickly evolving, and adapting to changing needs.
While addressing a widespread health crisis is not a new situation, the conditions surrounding our workplaces place a new spin on it. Policies will be a primary tactic in the initial return to the workplace with a focus on the use of personal protective equipment, level of cleaning, and controlling staff density. These policies can be supported by cost-effective enhancements to furniture, including reorientation of work surfaces and introduction of screen devices.
Lessons learned during this time will provide direction to redefine both the near-term and also the future workplace.