COVID-19 Design Series: A Workplace Designer and A Health Care Designer Walk into an Office

The first in a two-part series exploring how offices may now be designed with health care facilities in mind.

Many non-essential businesses are beginning to reopen their doors, and along with this reopening are a multitude of employees, who now emerge from home offices to return to the corporate workplace. We’ve come a long way in a very short time, learning to utilize new tools, learning new habits and adapting to new schedules. Still, a few things remain unchanged: humans are innately social beings that crave interaction and connectedness, and the work we do is largely team-based. The workplace serves both instinctual and practical human needs and will continue to serve our organizations as we shift into our “next normal.”

Our progressively slow return to the office brings with it questions about the long-term impacts COVID-19 will have on our work environments. From concerns around the number of people in a conference room at any given time to the amount of space in between desks to the kinds of materials used in common areas, there are a lot of considerations around what, if any, changes will be made not only to how we work but also to how the spaces in which we do that work might look different. As we put away our yoga pants and return to the world of business attire, organizations across the country are looking at ways to adapt their space, learning from this experience to minimize exposure risks, keep teams healthy and strengthen organizational culture.

For many designers, these considerations are not new. But a slow reintroduction back into office life does bring about a renewed vigor to learn how best practices within one building type can translate to another. At RDG, where we engage across sectors and disciplines, this practice is commonplace. One cross-sector collaboration that is particularly timely is the one between our health care design team and our corporate design team, as we look to implement best practices in medical environments into offices and retail spaces to help create a safer working environment. Health care designers, who spend time consulting with medical professionals, can provide critical insight into how health care facilities manage the spread of illness, despite having spaces where people are constantly interacting.

Change #1: Greater Emphasis on Cleaning Protocols and Indoor Air Quality

One of the immediate changes we’ll likely see in workplaces is the implementation of updated cleaning protocols and sanitation stations. Just as health care design revolves around cleanliness and best practices to avoid cross-contamination between patients, expect to see more stringent cleaning policies and more transparency around these practices in the office. Many organizations will be sharing what they’re using to clean and how often it is happening. In an office with shared workstations, single gathering spaces or overall proximity to one another, updated cleaning protocols can help mitigate the spread of illness. Placing multiple cleaning supply stations and hand sanitizing stations throughout an office reminds and encourages employees to use these products. Centralized trash, which removes individual trash locations to consolidated collection points, can limit microbial growth. Combining these efforts with new protocols around handshaking, digital vs. in-person meetings and requiring users to clean off any work surface before and after use, can help minimize the chance for exposure.

Much like their health care facility counterparts, in the era of COVID-19, office environments will become both more transparent and more stringent with cleaning policies. Creighton University School of Dentistry in Omaha, Nebraska by RDG. Photo by Michael Robinson

Likewise, much like already exists in health care facilities, we expect to see a greater emphasis on indoor air quality. Before bringing employees back to the office, organizations should clean air ducts to eliminate existing contaminants. They should further consider updating the buildings’ vitalization systems to bring in more outside air. Replacing the air filters in an HVAC system with MERV 13 and above-rated filters can reduce airborne contaminants, allergens and other volatile organic compounds, and increasing the humidity level to between 40-60 percent can help mitigate microbial growth. Though these practices may increase HVAC costs, they can ultimately serve to reduce the number of contagions in the air and help limit the risk of exposure. 

Change #2: “Members Only” Admission and Limited Density Design

In those first weeks back, expect to have fewer people in the space. One approach to minimizing exposure is to identify the “space-dependent” roles – those that require specific equipment and/or resources in the office for productive work – and phase their re-entry first. Prioritized activities might include team-based work such as critical meetings, group training or professional development or brainstorming sessions.

Taking a cue from health care facilities, which have already reduced the size of waiting rooms and instead directed sick patients to wait in exam rooms, offices will be challenged to reconsider the densification that has taken place over the last several years in order to follow current physical distancing recommendations. Many companies are choosing to limit guests and institute a screening process upon entry to the space, including the Iowa Clinic with whom RDG has collaborated on design projects. Dr. Christina Taylor, M.D. an internal medicine practitioner and Iowa Clinic’s Chief Quality Officer, explains a proactive approach involves “reducing the number of seats and expanding the space between chairs. Be prompt in greeting guests and quickly get them where they need to go,” and goes on to say, “businesses should be discouraging handshaking and instead, make up a fun hello – a wave, an air high-five – just don’t shake hands.”

Removing chairs from a conference room or lobby, arranging desks so they are more generously spaced and reintroducing a panel between desks are all easy ways to adapt existing spaces and allow users more physical distance. As Dr. Taylor points out, “being further away [from one another] will reduce the risk of spreading illness, but [prevention] is more about culture and business operations on cleanliness, and empowering people to make the smart decision to stay home if they experience any symptoms of illness.” As such, workplaces are likely to adopt stricter policy changes, such as training on proper respiratory etiquette, implementing single-day-use policies on shared workstations, helping people maintain proper distance along various pathways and designating certain areas as employee-only.

Moving forward, offices will be challenged to reconsider the densification that has taken place over the last several years in order to follow current physical distancing recommendations. Scott Technology Center in Omaha, Nebraska by RDG. Photo by AJ Brown Imaging.

Of course, all of this comes with the continued need for inclusivity, the need to ensure that every employee, whether in the office or not, has universal access to work. Many industries have found success in the working-from-home model, so expect to see more flexibility in these policies moving forward. By allowing workers that can productively work from home to do so, we’re creating a safer space for those designated space-dependent workers. Fewer people in the space means reduced exposure rates, allowance for proper distancing throughout the day and minimized contamination of high-touch surfaces.

Change #3: Further Integration of Technology

As we see more clients implementing telemedicine practices and allowing for both patients and providers to connect outside the clinic setting, so too are we seeing offices making the switch over to working remotely. The use of technology has allowed for an almost seamless transition to remote working. Expect to see more organizations leverage these tools, not just in the conference room, but throughout the entire floor plate. The addition of monitors and software programs allow those working remotely to seamlessly be a part of conversations and gatherings, while technology such as voice activation and Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) communication systems can reduce user interaction with high-touch surfaces and eliminate the need for phone handsets. As Dr. Taylor explains, “it would be ideal but may not be financially possible for businesses (to ensure that each person has their own phone, desk and computer). Forwarding calls to your own phone is a smart option. If possible, employees should share fewer items, and for those items that are shared, ensure that they are routinely cleaned.”

The innovative use of technology can increase engagement and allow more people to attend meetings without the risk of exposure. Iowa State University Economic Development Core Facility in Ames, Iowa by RDG. Photo by IRIS22 Productions.

In the last several months we’ve witnessed the innovative use of technology increase engagement and help organizations to be better prepared in the future. Rooms that are designed for ease of use allow more people to attend meetings without the risk of exposure or the additional expense of travel accommodations (if traveling to a site). Teams can have integrated conversations whenever and wherever needed, and with remote access, organizations are better prepared for future disasters. They have the tools to pivot quickly and minimize productivity loss.

Each of these will be helpful in the transition as we learn more about what the future office will demand. Because design is so responsive to the end-user, every organization will respond to this pandemic differently. As designers, especially now we need to listen intently to our clients, ensuring that we fully understand their evolving needs, priorities and concerns within the built environment. These immediate design changes may help create a safer and healthier work environment when done in conjunction with handwashing, regular cleaning and physical distancing, but the world is changing rapidly, and we also need to consider the longer-term effects of COVID-19. As we look further out into the future – six, 12, 18 months – we’ll need to continue to innovate our workplace designs to respond to our ever-changing world. The next article in this series will explore how we do exactly that.

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