COVID-19 Design Series: Imagining the Workplace of a Post-COVID Future

The second in our two-part series looking at COVID-19’s long-term impacts on workplace design and what lessons we can continue to learn from the health care market.

The face masks are on, workers are returning to the office and employees and employers are wondering “what’s next?” In our first article of this design series, we explored some of the more immediate ways the workplace might be impacted by COVID-19, examining the ways in which health care might inform modifications in the near-term. Now, we’re looking at the long-term impacts on workplace design – how the office of the future may be irrevocably changed and what lessons we can continue to learn from the health care sector to implement best practices and explore what might become the new norm.

Change #1: Updated Material Palettes and Surfaces that Work for Users

The lobby of Lakes Regional Healthcare Center in Spirit Lake, Iowa by RDG. Photo by
IRIS22 Productions.

A common critique of health care facilities is that they feel cold or sterile. Often this perception is an unintended consequence of the space’s material palette: the same non-porous, cleanable, antimicrobial surfaces that reduce the spread of contagions also tend to be solid materials that lack texture and color. Purposeful use of these materials can help mitigate the spread of germs without sacrificing a warm and comfortable aesthetic. Consider the following:

  • Using hard anti-microbial surfaces at high-density areas such as reception desks, meeting rooms and break rooms can help reduce the spread of cross-contamination between individuals. These materials can include silver-ion fused finishes such as paints, fabrics and other textiles.
  • Replacing heavy touched areas such as bathroom push plates (handles), handrails or common kitchen appliances handles with an alternative copper option can help remove contagions from some of the densest areas in an office. A budget-friendly fix might be to place copper foil tape over the top of these items until a more permanent solution can be achieved.
  • Resilient flooring is a durable and cleanable flooring option that is widely available in a variety of patterns and colors. Resilient flooring that depicts a warm wood pattern is a great alternative to natural wood or carpet – whose porous surfaces are more likely to trap and contain the contaminants we hope to avoid. 
  • Implementing glass partitions at reception desks that contain a photoactive pigment can help kill microbes when exposed to artificial or natural UV rays, allowing the surface to stay cleaner longer. This strategy allows workers to maintain direct sightlines while protecting both employees and visitors from potential direct exposure from each other, and indirect exposure from microbes on the glass itself. 

Implementing these materials in a design that reduces the spread of microorganisms and creates a warm environment can be tricky, but it’s not impossible. Designers often implement biophilic elements into a clean design solution to create an inviting and comfortable interior. This approach can offset the sterile feeling that high-performance materials can evoke. Using colors, patterns and resin panels elevates the design, directs circulation flow and keeps users safe.

Change #2: Reimagining Retention and Attraction

The greatest concern employers have about re-opening and recovery is protecting the health of employees and customers – and all for good reason: according to a recent study nearly two-thirds of employees are concerned about the risk to their health if they return to the office. How can employers not only retain but also attract employees in this climate? One critical step involves creating environments that are warm, engaging, and evoke a sense of cleanliness that gives employees and potential employees the confidence that a return to the office is safe and beneficial to workflow.

The commons cafe at the Iowa State University Economic Development Core Facility in Ames, Iowa by RDG. Photo by IRIS22 Productions.

Beyond material selections, workplaces can take cues from health care environments by integrating solutions that reinforce cleanliness as a priority.

  • Enact a “no lobby” approach to entry, allowing visitors to enter and go straight to a designated meeting room.
  • Create a touchless entry sequence with motion activation and foot pulls to reduce interaction with high-touch surfaces.
  • Designate a “scrub room” area near the entry to accept deliveries and provide space for visitors to sanitize hands, apply masks, conduct temperature checks, sign in and perform other required-entry protocols.
  • Similar to what is seen in health care environments, position accessible handwashing stations in highly visible locations throughout the office – not just in the kitchen and bathroom.
  • Implement signage within the office to clearly communicate expectations to staff and visitors.
  • Offer spaces to uphold the holistic health of your employees and emphasize a work/life balance that empowers employees to turn their screens off and allow their minds to move away from work.

There are three distinct categories of well-being – cognitive, emotional and physical – and each play a critical role in our overall health. Image © RDG Planning & Design.

Everyone’s response to this new environment is unique, and as we collectively progress towards a return to the office it’s critical that we provide employees with the resources to return to the office in a way that aligns with their comfort level. In Iowa, for example, 92 percent of people report distancing when in public places; we can only assume that those respondents will be looking to physically distance in their workplace as well.

Employers should continue to support all models of work – focus, collaboration, learning, and socialization – by leveraging the types of spaces available both in the office and at home. Doing so demonstrates that you’re committed to providing your team with the tools they need to get the job done regardless of their physical location and serves to reinforce employee retention and improved employee productivity. According to Gallup, Inc.’s 2015 State of the American WorkplaceReport, when employees’ needs are met, they don’t just become happier — they become better performers; thus, it stands to reason that listening to the needs of your team and offering them autonomy in difficult situations not only builds trust, loyalty and a sense of belonging within your organization, it also creates a more productive workforce overall.

Change #3: Reset Expectations Around Density

The pervasiveness of open office design has created fewer individual spaces and leading up to COVID-19, we were seeing an increase in shared desking approaches. For many employees, however, these shared workspaces represent a considerable psychological hurdle. Previously, our desks might have been packed side-by-side, and we’re now looking to widen the open space between em­ployees.

Ervin & Smith in Omaha, Nebraska by RDG. Photo by Tom Kessler.

In health care environments, patients often feel a loss of control during their recovery. Offering small considerations to the patient, such as choosing when to eat or bringing personal items into their rooms, can create a sense of control and familiarity. Likewise, workers may be feeling like they don’t have a great deal of control in where and how to work. Taking inspiration from our health care design counterparts, workplace designers can help employers implement steps to help address employee unease while upholding a safe and healthy office space.

  • Accommodate physical distancing needs by adjusting desk and circulation layouts to ensure that employees remain six feet apart.
Sample diagram of a typical desk layout (left) vs. an adjusted desk layout (right). Image © RDG Planning & Design.
  • Implement a phased re-entry approach that prioritizes “space-dependent” roles, allowing those that require the use of resources and tools within the building to do so with a lower exposure risk.
  • Allowing staff to choose their own spot and schedule as to when they are in the office can offer greater control over boundaries and enable adequate physical distancing.
  • Ensure unassigned environments have a clean desk policy, making sure shared desks are cleaned every night and remain more sanitary.
  • Invite employees to help take part by wiping down their stations before and after use. Beyond the obvious benefit of further cleanliness, this may bring assurance and a sense of control to employees that their stations are clean and that they are taking an active role in protecting their own health. 
  • Implement strategic circulation paths throughout the office to help alleviate unwanted exposures, and position staff near frequently used resources and exits to limit excessive travel through the building.

For many organizations, group work is a large part of the daily process. Nowadays, however, group work looks a little different. Following these same protocols reconfiguring shared spaces allows employees to engage in meaningful collaboration within shared gathering areas, while also remaining six feet apart and helping reduce the risk of germ spread.

Change #4: Emphasize Culture More Than Ever

As many as 63 percent of U.S. workers report spending less time socializing in the office since the coronavirus outbreak, which means it’s increasingly important to find ways to bring people together. The work environment is more than just a place to host meetings and conference calls—it’s a space where employees feel a sense of belonging and well-being; re-engaging teams safely in the era of COVID-19 will require companies to pivot and meet the changing needs of employees.

  • As people phase into the office at different rates, communicate the importance of respecting individual decisions. Doing so can help reduce any animosity between teammates and ensure everyone feels comfortable and engaged.
  • Whether it’s promoting collaboration or creating efficient outcome-focused environments, successful healthcare and workplace design solutions offer a clear and direct connection to the organization’s values.
Kirsch Transportation Services, Inc. in Omaha, Nebraska by RDG. Photo by Thomas Grady.
  • Implement tools to help with all levels of conversation – from social, comradery-based communication, to effective project management. Determine which tools work best for your office and implement them throughout. The methods you apply should serve both remote and in-office workers, ultimately becoming the norm for all team members.
  • We’re now living in an invite-only culture. This is helpful in our efforts to mitigate the spread of illness, but it’s also critical that we remember to invite others into conversations for learning purposes, to include all perspectives, and increase collaboration.
  • When possible, let employees take their equipment – laptops, headsets – with them to wherever they’re working. It can also help to share mementos (e.g. a company-branded calendar or souvenir) with those working from home to foster a continued connection to the workplace.

Social spaces bring people together, foster socialization and help create a company’s culture. By implementing protocols to keep these areas clean for all users, social spaces and amenities can continue to play a role in today’s workplace.

In the last several months, we’ve all adapted to working remotely, found success in utilizing technology and adjusted to new schedules. Still, something’s been missing: each other. People are what make every office extraordinary and meaningful, and as we return from the home office to the corporate office, the culture of our workplace will play an even more critical role in ensuring employees feel welcome, safe and invested in the work.

For more strategies to help re-connect your teams, inspire a shared vision and keep your employees safe and healthy, click here.

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