From home offices to dining room tables and spare bedrooms, many work environments looked much different this year thanks to Covid. The shift to remote work highlighted the importance of flexibility, but it also reiterated the value of physical office space. Many clients and partners took immediate action to support virtual collaboration while simultaneously adjusting workspaces to ensure safety in the near-term as some employees slowly returned.
Why Maintain or Build Office Space?
The short answer is, it comes down to people. While we—and many companies—are equipped to work remotely, the office environment supports many things that can only be done with daily, face-to-face interaction. We need to grow and nurture are people to develop. Part of that nurturing means improving the culture as well, so to keep our most valuable resource engaged, challenged and fulfilled, culture must be maintained. From top to bottom, our clients and design partners have concerns about “slippage” of the culture that has taken years to create. It’s the culture that drives teamwork, collaboration, and innovation. The ability to walk down the hall to a team member’s office to problem solve or discuss ideas drives creativity and improves the focus to push to the most desired results. This is the driving factor for clients and owners in building and bringing employees back to physical offices. The challenge for clients and owners is how to do so safely now and in the future.
Immediate Solutions for Increased Safety
Increasing the safety in offices in the immediate term can include spacing and updating protocols. Simple solutions such as increased signage, seating facing the same direction to reduce face-to face exposure and limiting public and collaboration space capacity immediately alleviate density within the office.
Clear signage on a circulation plan, room capacity, or new processes are simple, cost-effective ways to promote a healthy and safe work environment. With a consistent plan to get from point A to point B throughout the building while maintaining social distancing through one-way movement has proven to be very helpful.
Properly spacing is a critical first step, but equally as important is stopping further spread of the virus. Through cleaning protocols and touchless technology, organizations are able to mitigate potential exposures. The first line of defense once again comes back to people practicing personal responsibility. While most have become accustomed to the new pandemic norm, providing easy access to masks, hand washing stations, and signage reminders to promote healthy behaviors are all simple ways to promote personal responsibility.
In addition, focusing on previously contact heavy spots and making them touch free is a simple way to reduce transmission. While some changes are slightly more capital intensive, most are not. Foot pedals for doors, touch free water and coffee distribution and AV connectivity/usage are a few simple and very cost-effective ways to eliminate common touch points. When we can eliminate touch points passively, we need to actively make our common touch point surfaces clean and safe. Wiping down surfaces is not difficult, but visibility and communication of the plan while displaying the accountability of housekeeping staff creates a mentally healthy environment for employees.
The Future of Corporate Environments
Since early on in the pandemic, the design community has been diving into what changes need to be made. Fortunately, many of the identified items have been able to be incorporated into active and current office layouts. There are also a handful of items that will be a design focus moving forward.
Today’s open work environment is not conducive. Furniture layout and the mix of open / closed offices will need to be reviewed with each organization’s workflow and requirements to create a work place that maintains 6’ of physical distancing for all work spaces. The potential offset of required added square footage per employee without adding total square footage will need be reviewed and potentially off set by reducing the total number of workspaces required. Alternating work start times and flex schedules (hoteling), supported with proper cleaning protocols may allow the same size building to service the same number of employees.
Meeting and learning spaces will be adjusted as well. This change should be welcomed by us all. Nobody likes being elbow to elbow in an enclosed conference room. Incorporating open collaboration rooms, hybrid in person / virtual environments and furniture configuration will allow teams to meet face to face when necessary to promote collaboration and maintain organizational culture.
Controlling air born contaminants will be critical to the reduction of contamination. This is achieved in two steps:
- Active HVAC systems – Designing systems that can be zoned first and filtered second is the key to making this work. The technology has been here for years, but the deployment of state-of-the-art systems are not the most cost-effective solutions. Retrofitting is also somewhat challenging as the relocation of ductwork and filtration systems will likely require disruption of the workplace.
- Air Quality Measurement Systems – Once the tools are in place to treat the building environment, monitoring and tracking will be key. Using smart building technology, the ability to monitor and communicate to building managers will allow to detect a potential solution prior to there being an issue caused by poor air quality
- Revised Entry Procedures – While employees who come to their building every day will understand new protocols and design put in place to create a healthy work environment, future design will have to accommodate daily visitors and guests.
- Lobby design will be very critical to the success of a healthy work environment. From vestibules with touchless entrance, screening and sanitization facilitation, to layouts with direct connectivity to horizontal and vertical circulation (with air filtration and touch free activation), all potential tools and design thought will need to reviewed with how a building operates to maximize a healthy and safe work environment
- The area for deliveries, food service, and 3rd party services is one that is often overlooked by many employees, but it is an area that requires special attention. The back-of-house areas see the highest influx of people that can generate cross-contamination in a building. Many of the same requirements of the new entrance lobbies as well as other operational protocols will need to implemented there as well.
Employees across all industries have not only adjusted to remote work, but many are also accustomed to the new routine. But the tangible benefits of returning to offices cannot be replaced by virtual meetings or conference calls. We believe at JE Dunn that we are better together—for the relationships, training, skills, and culture that are fostered in person. With safety at the forefront, we believe offices and corporate environments are well poised to return and meet employees’ changing needs better than ever.