Covid Futurism – Part 2: Rethinking the Office Environment

An article by Rebekah Holcombe, NCIDQ, CID

Introduction

For years, a major trend in corporate office design has been to attract and retain the millennial workforce, with an increase in shared amenity spaces, collaborative areas, and flexible furniture systems designed for movement within the space throughout the day. With that has come a reduction in footprint for individual workstations and private offices, more focus on striving for a work-life balance, and more dependency on mobile technology. The office environment itself has shifted to look and function more like a residential unit to meet these expectations of balance and flexibility.

Figure 1

With the recent COVID-19 outbreak, we’ve seen a dramatic shift of corporate offices moving their employees to company-wide work from home policies. All of a sudden, each employee had to create a functioning work environment within their personal residence. The lines of work and home life have become more blurred than ever before, with spouses, children, and pets as the new coworkers. Shared amenity spaces are our living rooms and kitchens, rather than office collaboration areas and coffee bars. Video conferencing has taken the place of conference rooms, and workstations vary from designated home offices to a clear spot at the kitchen table. With all of these changes, our dependency on mobile technology and connective software has increased exponentially.

After months of this routine that I won’t try to call ‘normal’, companies are now having to ask the questions:

  • What changes need to be made to the workplace as people return to the office?
  • Does the office environment we’ve grown accustomed to work with new CDC guidelines for social distancing and the work from home model we’ve been practicing for months?
  • How do we attract and retain new employees, and also keep all of our employees safe and healthy?
  • Does the current corporate office module meet our future needs, and what lessons can be taken from this experience?

A Time of Restructuring and the Future Office Environment

During this time of work-from-home, the commercial interior design industry has been active with virtual continuing education courses, new product roll-outs, and new suggested practices for how to reorganize the office environment to meet current guidelines. As professional, certified designers, we know that with this type of upheaval throughout the world, there will certainly be major changes to the work we do and the way we do it, just as our clients will have to make changes to how and where they work. So as corporate companies grapple with how to move forward from an employee management standpoint, the design industry is preparing for upcoming modifications that will be needed for the physical environment to coordinate with new health safety guidelines.

Some companies with open office layouts may be able to alter employee work schedules to increase distance between employees in their existing space by reverting to assigned workstation seating, as well as the potential for reduced capacity through alternating work days or split mornings and afternoons, with employees continuing to work from home the rest of the time (a return to a modified shift work schedule). Some other offices may be able to modify existing modular furniture layouts to reduce face-to-face contact between employees with simple rotation of work surfaces, and the addition of desktop privacy screens. Since these changes are relatively minor from a renovation standpoint, this could be accomplished without needing to bring on an interior designer, and the transition could be handled through a work order system or facilities management team.

Figure 2

As a more drastic alternate, some companies may have found that their day-to-day work can be accomplished mostly, if not entirely remotely, and the past few months of upheaval will have been an extended trial period that leads to an entirely new system of corporate work for the future. For those companies, the traditional, built office environment may require a significantly reduced footprint, and the budgets that previously covered company rent, utilities, and capital renovations for a large in-office workforce may be reallocated to equipping the majority of employees to work remotely on a more permanent basis. For offices that come to this conclusion, there may be an upcoming period of downsizing office spaces in lieu of the future office environment. These may be offices that are reserved for critical support functions, such as IT teams requiring direct access to on-site servers, or office space that caters to critical in-person meetings and events, such as new hire onboarding, employee training, and scheduled retreats when employees may need to be physically present. These offices would likely require an extensive change management process that helps them map out a long-term transition leading to a significantly reduced office footprint while maintaining their current staff size.

Figure 3

This future office environment would be anchored by built office spaces that function more as corporate headquarters akin to company ‘showrooms’, spaces that are designed to highlight and reinforce the company branding, culture, and values through their design, which function as a resource for employees, rather than as a place where they are required to be present for 40+ hours a week. The space would house limited open office areas, and private offices when necessary for management, rather than providing fixed seating for all employees. Likewise, conference rooms would be reduced in size and quantity, and technology for video conferencing would play a key role in the design of each conference room to connect with remote employees and clients. For training, more emphasis would be placed on individual and small team training rooms, not dissimilar to the phone booths and huddle rooms we see in offices today, and these would be well equipped with the technology required for the training process. This new office would likely feature a central hub with break and coffee functions, as well as work-lounge seating areas that could flex to accommodate larger groups when necessary for events or meetings. The work-from-home model could be the future standard for individual focus work, with the office environment reserved for group functions.

If this scenario were projected even further into the future, I could see companies highlighting an employee benefit of ‘working from anywhere’ flexibility, especially as younger generations enter the workforce needing long-term employment, but also not wanting to settle down in one place. This may allow employees the option to work at home, or even allow them to work while traveling the US or the world, all while maintaining their full-time employee status using remote servers, messaging, and virtual meeting technologies.

With all of that said, for a lot of companies, there won’t be a ‘quick fix’ employee scheduling and furniture solution in their existing space, and the projected ‘future office environment’ is not a transition that is likely to happen overnight. A recent study, the Gensler U.S. Work from Home Survey 2020, shows that most workers are ready to get back into a routine of going to their offices. In the meantime, as we venture out of our temporary quarantine routines and resume a semblance of our previous daily schedules outside of our homes, the corporate workforce will return to their offices, likely with modifications, and certified interior designers are equipped to step in and help with this, using industry knowledge and creative thinking to maximize workplace functionality while adhering to new health and safety guidelines.

Designing for a Modified Office Environment

Designing for millennials in the workplace and an emphasis on open office design has led to reduced dedicated personal space and increased shared collaborative spaces in offices over the past few decades. While this has helped to establish a workplace culture that deviated from both traditional private office layouts and open office ‘cube farms’ that came shortly after, the more recent trends toward hot-desking at reduced footprint workstations, and an increase in shared common space modules that have been so desired may now be inadequate for meeting the health-based needs of multiple generations in the workforce today.

In the immediate future, I foresee that there will be an increase in the emphasis on dedicated personal space in offices and the potential for a reduction in capacity for large gathering spaces.

Workstations that have been reduced over time to as little as 7ft. x 5ft. with +/- 42in. tall panels, and even less in benching layouts, may be stretched again to accommodate current recommendations to maintain a minimum of 6ft. between users. As we have learned more about the spread of COVID-19 and its ability to pass through the air between people in close proximity, as well as its ability to linger on some hard surfaces for up to 2-3 days at the time this was written, it has become clear that either hot-desking at multiple workstations throughout the day or sitting at small dedicated workstations in an open office environment could contribute to increased spread of this virus. With this in mind, I could see office design reverting to assigned workstations (or at a minimum requiring daily reservations with nightly cleaning), as well as increasing workstation size to at least 7ft. x 7ft. with taller panels between them.

Where it is not possible for offices to provide larger workstations in the open office, taller panels will become a standard design feature for protecting employees while they work, particularly if offices provide their employees with adjustable height work surfaces. In order to maintain the extended sightlines employees have come to appreciate in recent years of open office design, furniture manufacturers throughout the United States and across the globe have been developing and introducing new options for clear plexiglass and glass ‘sneeze guards’ in panel systems, and as a retrofit option for existing open office systems furniture to accommodate this need.

Figure 4

Visual cues expressed through building materials and support features may also become a more widely used method of reinforcing social distancing in the open office environment. The example below shows clearly expressed 6ft. circles in the carpet, designed to separate the circulation area from individual workstation spaces, and central file storage helps to further separate workstations from each other with a physical barrier. While this example shows a high contrast, extreme version of this concept, I believe interior designers will be able to develop this idea further to create more subtle cues to help direct employees between personal and shared spaces while maintaining social distance.

Moving beyond workstations to office amenities and shared spaces, recent trends have led to office break rooms becoming lively coffee bars and large, open gathering spaces, the hub for interpersonal relationships, as well as an alternative location for work. In a large corporate office, hundreds of people might be using this space throughout the day. While I love to have a nice chat over a good cup of coffee to catch up on the lives of my coworkers, and I am a huge advocate for these spaces enabling positive office culture, I do think that modifications to the design details of these spaces will be necessary for moving forward. Since these spaces contribute so much to the culture of an office and help to foster relationships between coworkers, it will be important moving

Figure 5

forward to consider best practices for keeping them clean as a high traffic area.

Based on recent news and conversations I’ve had with colleagues, friends, and family, people today are hyper-conscious about the number of shared surfaces they interact with each day. To that end, inherently antimicrobial and easily cleanable surfaces should be used in shared spaces wherever possible in the office environment for areas where contact can’t be eliminated altogether. While there has been an industry push towards using quartz countertops in locations with sinks in recent years for improved durability and aesthetics over other countertop finishes, I foresee that they will become more standard as time moves forward throughout office spaces, and they may also be used more regularly for large team tables and conference tables as well. Hands-free alternative door controls and automatic motion sensor door openers will likely become more widely used for accessing shared spaces within offices, and relatively new products in development may lead to inherently anti-microbial copper coatings becoming a standard for traditional door handles. Likewise, touch-free faucets, soap dispensers, and paper towel dispensers are and will continue to be a good way to reduce the number of surfaces requiring shared contact. Recent technology developments have even led to commercial coffee makers that can be controlled by smartphones, eliminating the need for employees to touch shared controls on their surfaces.

Figure 6b
Figure 6a

Soft surface standards will need to change as well. In healthcare applications, it has been a design standard to use exclusively vinyls for upholstery of soft seating inpatient treatment areas and a combination of vinyls and coated, bleach cleanable fabrics such as Crypton or Nanotex for upholstered seating in public spaces, such as waiting rooms. I think these upholstery options, as well as other similar developing options, will begin to be used more extensively in corporate environments moving forward as well. These options will be of utmost importance in shared areas, since they are resistant to water and stains, have antimicrobial properties, and can be easily cleaned. These upholsteries also tend to be more durable than other options on the market, so there will be multifaceted benefits to using them in corporate office spaces.

In addition to modifying the materials used for shared spaces, the layout of large office break and collaboration spaces will need to change to meet current social distancing recommendations at this time, and they will likely continue to change as recommendations for distancing are (hopefully) eased in the future. Café tables and banquettes that were designed to seat 3-4 people may only be suitable for a single user. Likewise, large team gathering tables designed for 6-8 users may be reduced to seating only 2-4 users. Residential style lounge furniture arrangements may require reconfiguration to provide improved separation between users. Lounge chairs may become a standard over sofas, with fewer options for shared seating. Continuing furniture development may also see an uptick in seating options that include taller backs and integrated side privacy panels, designed to suit individual users. Alternatively, offices may consider incorporating multiple, smaller break areas designed to support fewer employees, so each team or several teams within an organization may share one collaborative break area, allowing them to stay in one area of the building for most of the day, reducing contact with employees from other areas of the office.

Not all shared surfaces are in break and collaboration areas. Conference rooms and team rooms also play a large role in the office environment we’ve seen lately. Since interoffice messaging and video conferencing software have become part of our standard routines while we work from home, these will likely continue to be used as we return to our offices. I foresee that in-person meetings will continue to be placed on hold in favor of continued video and conference calls. This will not only cut down on the number of transient people entering the office space, but it will also help reduce traffic on the roads and

Figure 7

billable travel time, which will allow that time to be used for more productive tasks. When people are required to be physically present for meetings, or when the content of meetings is not appropriate for a video call (such as a finish presentation for the interior design field), I expect that smaller groups of people will be meeting in larger conference rooms originally intended for larger gatherings, in order to maintain social distancing recommendations. Antimicrobial and easily cleanable surfaces will be key design features to improve peace of mind for health safety in these rooms.

Conclusion

While none of us are capable of predicting the future, and I make no claims of knowing how future offices will be designed, I believe the points outlined above will be relevant as we return to our offices after this outbreak, more educated, and having gotten through this experience. As a certified interior designer, it is my job to help clients achieve the goals they have for their office space while adhering to all codes and guidelines in order to protect their health, safety, and welfare. The knowledge and experience certified designers are required to have has equipped us to address some of the very real concerns that people have about safely going back into an office environment. This time of change and reevaluation is an opportunity to figure out how we can improve the corporate office experience and appeal to future generations while protecting all employees in their day-to-day lives. It is my hope that by making modifications to our work environments and entertaining the idea of a more flexible workforce, we will open ourselves up to opportunities to achieve the work-life balance that we’ve been chasing for years.


Image Sources?

Cover photo: Scrabble letters – KHAKIMULLIN ALEKSANDR/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM, https://www.nextgov.com/ideas/2020/05/forget-work-life-balance-its-all-about-integration-age-covid-19/165473/

Figure 1: officesnapshots.com PTC Global Headquarters – Boston, https://officesnapshots.com/2019/09/16/ptc-global-headquarters-boston/

Figure 2 & 3: Global Furniture Group – rebooting the workplace, https://www.globalfurnituregroup.com/workplace/resources/brochures#category-container-1

Figure 4: Three H Furniture Systems conceptual, https://www.timminstoday.com/coronavirus-covid-19-local-news/what-will-the-office-of-the-post-covid-19-future-look-like-2403173

Figure 5: Reuters.com – protype international office for Cushman & Wakefield in Amsterdam, Netherlands, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-workplace/the-end-of-the-open-plan-office-workspaces-get-post-pandemic-makeovers-idUSKBN22H2BC

Figure 6a & 6b: Example of bleach cleanable fabrics by Knoll Textiles, https://www.knoll.com/shop/knolltextiles/knolltextiles-resources/understanging-bleach-cleanable-and-antimicrobial

Figure 7: Unispace post pandemic office graphic, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200514-how-the-post-pandemic-office-will-change

Other Resources (not directly referenced)

https://zenbooth.net/blogs/zenbooth-blog/flexible-workplace-design-trends-examples-and-benefits

https://dynamicsignal.com/2018/10/09/key-statistics-millennials-in-the-workplace/

https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/covid-19-basics

https://www.healthline.com/health/how-long-does-coronavirus-last-on-surfaces#how-to-clean

https://home.howstuffworks.com/home-improvement/construction/planning/quartz-countertops-in-kitchen2.htm

https://www.globalindustrial.com/p/janitorial-maintenance/bathroom/supplies/sanitary-door-opener-640306?infoParam.campaignId=T9F&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIkurix6v36QIVAuDICh3ISg5rEAQYASABEgIrV_D_BwE

https://www.architectmagazine.com/practice/rethinking-office-design-trends-in-a-post-covid-world_o

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-copper-antimicrobi/copper-takes-aim-at-covid-19-with-virus-killer-coatings-idUSKBN22K0RX

https://www.gensler.com/us-wfh-survey-2020-wfh-reinforces-the-benefits-of-the-office

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