What will change when we return from quarantine?

As we transition back into the office, there are many unknowns in terms of what the day-to-day will look like and, while it may feel like we will be distancing ourselves from others, this new normal might actually bring us closer together. There are many design and product considerations that will drive a successful return to the office. Work station design, office layouts, wall cladding materials, sensor-activated fixtures will all play a key role in keeping our offices safe and reduce the risk of future outbreaks. The new office space might be less populated but in making it safe for employees to return, we will see a lot of new innovations that have been a long time in the making. We will be physically distancing ourselves but actually, more connected than ever before with video conferencing, coordinated schedules and even more privacy in the open floor plans that everyone is accustomed to. In fact, the open floor plan might have been a blank slate allowing us to make these important shifts as we return to work and design and craft our new normal.


Reducing the number of employees in the office and decreasing the density after we return will be a critical first step. Many offices will implement an initial 50% reduction in density that will reduce the number of people in one place at a time and improve the density of the office to enable safe social distancing practices. Depending on size and the nature of how an office does business, creating two teams will likely be the easiest way to start this transition. This will mean that the practices currently in place to successfully work from home will remain and need to evolve to accommodate coordinating multiple teams. One potential mindset will be to work from home as much as possible and come into the office when absolutely necessary.


Much of how we worked before the pandemic forced many employees to work from how involved shoulder-to-shoulder seating configurations and workstations that were about collaborative spaces than about safe social distancing and privacy. We will start to see new definitions of privacy. In the open workspace this typically referred to noise but now this will mean more physical distance and barriers between people. While workstations will need to incorporate physical barriers like glass benching screens, we have proven, during this time of isolation, that even when we are physically apart, we can remain connected and maybe even more connected that before with video conferencing and messaging. The materials workstations are made of will need to be easy to clean and non-porous and employees will need to have their own personal mice and keyboards rather than share, especially in conference rooms.


There are a lot of existing products and technology that can be utilized to reduce the number of touch points that employees interact with every day: handles, faucets, keyboards, etc. Bathrooms are spaces with a concentrated number of people using a single space and fixtures. The less we touch these things, the less we risk encountering something that can make us sick. Sensor-activated fixtures and even something as simple as toilet cubicles stalls that stay ajar to reduce the need to touch handles will help make these frequently used spaces safer. Doors that are used most will need to have automatic openers and all others will have to be easy to open with your shoulder or elbow (a technique we are all getting used to) and self-closing to eliminate the need for an entire office to touch one door pull when entering the office.
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For most offices today, the open floor plan is a reality that might have been successful at first, criticized for lack of privacy second but might actually be an asset when it comes to flexibility and a new need for staggering workstations, reducing the size of meetings spaces to create more space for employees to keep a safe distance from each other and quickly reconfigure as needed. Mobile screens and portable office partitions will make reconfiguring and reducing density easy as this “new normal” becomes a reality and the office need to respond to future changes and possible outbreaks.


Office designers will need to rethink which materials are used so that they can incorporate non-porous surfaces that are easy to clean. While replacing every wall and finish material might not be practical, all the high-touch surfaces should be materials that are easy to clean. Materials like glass and metal are inherently hygienic and easy. Porous materials, like fabrics, used to dampen sound, should be placed out of reach to prevent employees from touching surfaces that collect germs. Glass office fronts and doors, toilet cubicles made from glass or phenolic, non-porous panels should be used not only as hygienic surfaces but incorporated into the design and function of the office. Glass walls can create privacy with their finishes and become writing surfaces. While there are simple solutions like anti-microbial coating that can easily be wiped on and have self-disinfecting properties designers will be challenged to find new ways of making non-porous materials feel warm and inviting and less like a sterile hospital. White safety and hygiene are now priorities, we can’t lose focus of how important it is that the workplace remains an inviting and exciting place to work and that we maintain an identity aligned with a company’s philosophy even if that means rethinking how we design and work with materials.


A big part of the success of combating coronavirus in the workplace will happen behind the scenes and in between meetings. Improved cleaning procedures will be implemented, offices will need to educate their employees on good hygiene practices and provide personal protective equipment and other means to stay aware of what needs to change to be safe. Even the way we greet each other will need to change. Even the way we greet each other will need to change. Handshakes and hugs are likely to become a thing of the past. A typical in-person introduction might start with a bow and end with business cards being exchanged digitally on an app.


High occupancy spaces like conference rooms and lobbies will need to reduce density and pivot to functioning in a way that allows for social distancing. This might mean smaller conferences rooms with tables that only accommodate a certain number of chairs, lobbies that have fewer seats and waiting areas that are divided by mobile screens. There are also simpler solutions like hand sanitizer stations and protective transaction screens at front desks. Most meetings can happen via video conferencing, despite employees being in close proximity to each other. This might actually be a positive change…no more running late for meetings!


While the whole point of an office is to bring people together to collaborate, these new practices that are meant to keep us safe seem to be pulling us apart. While that might be true in terms of the physical distance between employees, we might come out of this initial pandemic more connected and productive than before. Technology will play a big part in that whether it is through video conferencing for meetings, room schedulers that help coordinate who needs to be in the office or relying on our phones to unlock doors. One positive outcome that has happened while we are in quarantine is that we can work from home and for the most part, be as productive as before. The pandemic will push our professional culture to a place that, maybe, it should have gone long before this even happened.

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