10/5/2020

Post-Pandemic Office Design Strategies to Use When You Return to Work

Much has been written about the post-pandemic office design. Many workers have been counting the days and hours until they can return to the office. Working from home has proven too disruptive, and they have struggled to sustain work productivity while dealing with kids who are trying to learn online, spouses who compete with them for workspace, and housemates who simply want to hangout. Many others have thrived during the pandemic, embracing the flexibility of work from home to increase their productivity. 

Some businesses have floundered to get their sea legs underneath them; inefficiencies increased, worker productivity declined, and customer engagement and satisfaction diminished. But many have found that their preconceived notions about moving to a remote workforce ill-founded. Workers are working more hours, are more engaged, and more productive.

Return to Work and Post-Pandemic Office Design

The reality is that office workspaces will not go away for most businesses. But what they look like and what work policies businesses enact will look different than they did before the pandemic. Some workers simply have no desire to go back to spending valuable time commuting to and from work and sitting in an assigned workspace eight hours a day. Unless they are given no choice, these workers will join the growing remote workforce. Others desire some interactions with their colleague but don’t want to return to commuting to an office every day. Still others plan to return to a regular workspace five days a week upon being permitted to do so.

Many businesses are entertaining hybrid office arrangements that leverage a mixture of permanent and on-demand workspace. Coworking space and rented day offices and conference rooms like Davinci Meeting Rooms will play an important role in this new hybrid workspace world. These hybrid office approaches will support workforces that are much more “workplace” diverse than before the pandemic.

A Look at the Post-Pandemic Office Design

Prognosticators believe the post-pandemic office will look completely different than the pre-pandemic office. But will that be the case? The likely answer is “both.” With many businesses experiencing financial pressures as a result of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, full overhauls of offices simply won’t be feasible. Yet, there will be discernible differences, with the post-pandemic office adhering to certain principles. Following are post-pandemic office design strategies that we are likely to see.

Sanitization with UV-C Light, VHP, and iHP

Businesses will need to implement a regular—perhaps daily—sanitization regimen. One is the use of UV-C light to kill organisms and inactivate viruses on the surface of objects. The effectiveness of UV-C light, however, is contingent upon line of sight and distance from the source. Areas that are not directly exposed to the light remain contaminated. 

The primary use case are high-output UV-C robots, which are used in hospitals to sanitize patient rooms and subways, can decontaminate a room in around 30 minutes. But these robots cannot be used when humans are present because the intensity of the light the emit will cause damage to human skin and eyes. Another option for UV-C light is to place high-output UV-C lamps with louvers in upper air fixtures that direct the light towards the ceiling and use convection forces to disinfect the air. 

Another office sanitization method is vaporized hydrogen peroxide (VHP) that is delivered through mist foggers or robots. Research shows it is 80% to 90% effective in killing microorganisms. But like UV-C robots, occupants cannot be present when VHP is applied. One option, in the event that workers are present, is to use ionized hydrogen peroxide (iHP), which can be installed in a central HVAC system. These appear to be the most effective—in terms of cost and ease of management. 

Safety Panels/Sneeze Guards 

Safety panels or sneeze guards are a mainstay in most retailers and restaurants. As company offices and coworking spaces begin to reopen, plexiglass sneeze screens will become a mainstay in offices and coworking spaces. The density of the open office space today intensifies the need to separate workspaces with sneeze guards. Some architectural firms are even employing algorithmic tools to determine what workspace arrangements are safe. 

Ventilation Systems 

Many office buildings already had poor ventilation systems before the pandemic. Those that can afford to do so will upgrade their HVAC systems to bring in more fresh air. This means offices will install bi-polar ionization and humidifiers (to keep humidity between 40% and 60%) in HVAC systems. For businesses that lack the budget to do so, they likely will elect to bring in portable air purifiers—and many workers may bring their own. Some businesses are even installing giant exhaust fans where small groups of people meet to pipe in fresh air. And while workspaces are likely to close in with barriers and walls, conference rooms will open up, losing one of the four walls to create more air flow.

Antimicrobial Materials and Coatings

COVID-19 can live for hours or days on surfaces people touch regularly—from door handles, to chairs, to countertops. Copper and silver ion components seem to be the ideal, where the virus can only live for about four hours compared to five days on common hardware metal finishes. In addition to switching over to antimicrobial materials and coatings, offices will look to install surfaces that are easily wipeable and limit horizontal surfaces like dust shelves where potential viruses can thrive.

Cubicles Reconsidered 

Office space over the past few years has rapidly moved in the direction of workspaces without any walls or barriers separating workers (as well as compressing workspaces closer and closer together). This trend is likely to end, and there likely to be a resurgence in cubicles. However, researchers believe these even will not be enough to prevent the spread of infections, with research showing that infectious droplets can travel as far as 27 feet. Thus, office density will reduce significantly and cubicle walls and barriers such as sneeze guards will become the norm. 

Touchless Activation 

The easiest way to ensure workers do not infect each other by touching surfaces infected with a virus is to implement touchless technology for doors, elevators, coffee makers, lights, and other devices that get high volumes of traffic. Some of the potential touchless technologies include 1) motion-activated lights and doors, 2) voice command smart screens, 3) fob keys and contactless locks, 4) infrared scanning and heat sensors, and (5) self-cleaning spaces. 

Virtual Meetings Over Conference Rooms 

In-person meetings will likely decrease in the post-pandemic office world. Most workers are now accustomed to virtual meetings due to the pandemic, and they are just as productive and effective as in-person meetings in most cases.

New Office Entries 

Nearly every coworking space and many offices in general have a greeter who directs incoming workers to available workspaces and food and beverages in the kitchen area. The objective of these greets is to help workers get settled and to feel comfortable. The post-pandemic office design will reconstruct their entry as a “mud room” where workers have their temperatures checked, change their shoes, wash their hands, and get a mask if they don’t have one. 

More Offices and Workers in the Suburbs and Even Rural America

The combination of the pandemic and social unrest in urban centers is leading to urban flight. In addition to health and safety concerns, many workers no longer need to tether themselves and their families to high-rent apartments and huge mortgages near urban centers to avoid two- to four-hour commute times. Indications, at least in certain urban areas, show that workers are beginning to move to suburbs or even rural areas. But as not every worker is equipped to work 100% of the time from home and office space is required for some meetings and interactions, suburban and rural areas are likely to see a rise in on-demand coworking and meeting room space will. 

Adjusted Work Schedules 

The 9-to-5 work schedule was already being jettisoned by growing numbers of workers and businesses before the pandemic. That process was accelerated, and having a workforce who sit in an assigned workspace eight or nine hours a day is likely to be the exception rather than the normal very soon. 

With office density a concern, companies will begin to stagger work schedules to ensure safe social distancing. Workers will embrace a hybrid work schedule where they work some of the day from the house, and the rest of the day from the office. In other instances, workers may only come to the office once or twice per week. Businesses and managers will measure workers based on what they achieve and if they meet their major business objectives rather than the amount of time they spend working. 

Post-Pandemic Office Rejuvenates Workers, Businesses, and Society

We have witnessed dramatic social and economic changes over the past six months. Businesses that swore off remote workers and mandated that their employees work from a permanent workspace in a corporate office suddenly had to backtrack and discovered that their previous concerns about remote workers were unfounded—they were actually more productive and work more hours than when they had to work from a physical office. Businesses also found that they can continue to operate—and successfully in the vast majority of cases—with a 100% remote workforce. 

While many businesses will return to offices post-pandemic, their office design and approach will not resemble what it did before the pandemic. The rigidity of the pre-pandemic office will be replaced with hybrid offices that combine permanent and on-demand workspace and measure employees on what they achieve rather than on time spent in an office and assigned workspace. In the case of office space, they will undergo both physical and process changes to ensure the health and safety of workers. And with more professionals moving into rural settings, we likely will witness a rejuvenation of rural cities and locations that have become economic and social blights over the past couple decades. 

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