Companies and firms representing nearly every discipline have issued emails and position papers, speculating on the ‘what now, what next.’ The sharing of information is plentiful, the speculations are vast, but when it comes down to it, nobody truly knows anything for certain. Many published opinions center on how our architects and designers must create a workplace that encourages behaviors with a focus on wellness and safety, but it is crucial to note the definitions of wellness and safety have changed. These words, once inferring only to our levels of fitness, mental fortitude, and security against external threats, have now expanded to include an assurance of isolation from disease and a separation from contaminated droplets, surfaces, and of course, co-workers.
And while there is an agreed acceptance of this common enemy (germs), there is no shortage of options for tactical implementation. We’ve read about portable air purifier filtration and bi-polar ionization to UVC Lamps, touchless toilet systems and barrier controls like airlocks and air showers. We’ve seen notes on relative humidity level assurances and one-way paths of travel throughout the office, not to mention re-training employees in personal hygiene. There are also the more policy-heavy approaches – assigning roles like Quarantine Marshal and COVID Block Captain , conjuring faint memories of a hall monitor, wandering the office with a thermometer and patrolling colleagues and visitors for fever. These are brainstorms, but they are just that. Long-term solutions simply aren’t clear, and therefore permanent physical modifications to the office environment have yet to be considered. News of the virus evolves daily, and the clients to whom we’ve spoken are focused on how to phase the return of their employees to the office in a way that protects everyone’s health and well-being.
Before COVID-19 reared its ugly impact, we weren’t really seeing demand for new office buildings; there was a surplus in office space supply, and we were doing more renovations and asset repositioning.
This isn’t too terribly different than what is happening in the projected post-pandemic life – an evolution from more open work stations to different environments within the same space. The open office has been scrutinized for years, as many employees claim they cannot work efficiently in open workstations, preferring private offices instead. This worldwide scourge may in fact provide the counter-sayers with new ammunition they need to argue for new floorplates and dividing walls or partitions. Design Collective architect, Nick Tomaszewski, adds that hoteling may become even more mainstream in light of COVID. Josh White at LCOR agrees with Nick, and shares that his team is in the process of including a hoteling component to a new workspace in Bethesda, though the view on hoteling is one of the many contradictory predictions within the industry. While some think hoteling will be more frequent in the office as people drop in when health allows and necessity demands, others believe hoteling will decrease, as nobody wants to work in a space they don’t have complete sanitary control over. Design Collective architect, Fiver Soraruf, says that clients are eager for case studies to get some direction, but that the answer is not going to just be “spreading out employees.” He speculates the floorplate may become more spread out, but only 75% of employees would come in at once. Of course, some industries like law firms already have layouts where everyone has their own individual office, so not every office in every industry will need to shift. Though while a tie to place may be less important, Josh thinks the imperative nature of change will rely on seamless connectivity to computers, printers, video cameras, and the like.
Josh notes that his close-knit group has done their best to stay connected, and knows not everyone will opt to return to the office with frequency. While “this may result in seeing people in the office less frequently…LCOR will continue to focus on our people and explore ways in which we can bring everyone together.” Arsh Mirmiran from Caves Valley Partners expands this thought into the impact on space. “I could see a maximum of 20% reductions in office space requirements for companies,” he says, citing that working from home is effective for some people, but definitely not for others. “I think most people benefit from the structure and supervision associated with being co-located in an office.” He speculates that perhaps companies may adopt a limited number of offices for dedicated key staff, and a plug and play space for others, who work remotely some of the time. There is a significant lack of clarity on whether people will want to return to an office if given the option. Cushman & Wakefield’s Recovery Readiness guide outlines reasons as to why people would want to return to the office, adjacent to a list of reasons why individuals would want to stay home. Under the Return column, they note, “fewer distractions which enables focus and creativity.” Directly adjacent lies a column as to why people would want to stay away, “focus is easier when working from home.”
To date, modified behavior has been the cornerstone of CDC guidelines to address COVID-19. We’ve all learned that keeping physical distance, vigilance to proper hygiene, and wearing face masks are successful in decreasing the rate of infection, so these are behaviors we want to consider as we start to go back to work. We’re in the phase where our clients are eagerly awaiting to hear their options and guidelines.
Principal, Lou Ghitman, states that Design Collective prides itself on the ability to design spaces that remain adaptable through their life cycle, so many of the workspaces we create are already designed to be as flexible as possible. Principal Matt Herbert agrees, “flexibility has always been a key to effective office design.”
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