Now and Next: Looking Ahead to Life Post-COVID, Workplace Edition

The COVID-19 situation changes by the hour, forcing business and consumers to pivot, change and redirect.  At Shea, we have our finger on the pulse of all environments, from workplace to hospitality, and how they’re being affected by the crisis. Once stay-at-home orders begin to change, workplaces will be on the frontlines as employees head back to their desks, conference rooms, and offices—and everyone wants to be prepared so that employees and visitors can be put at ease in a world that has undeniably shifted.

In the first edition of our Now and Next series, we’ll look at how workplaces can prepare and respond as employees come back to work with trepidation. This crisis has been one of a generation, and the current workforce has never dealt with something of this magnitude. Employers and landlords need to look proactively about what can be done immediately to ease everyone’s fear, as well as thinking about how this will impact workplace design down the road.

Now

What needs to be done imminently is to prepare spaces for people to come back with a new mindset—one that sees more threat in the everyday. At Shea, we’ve always been about creating consumer-centric spaces, and in the workplace, that means ones that center on employees and visitors. We’re redefining “consumer-centric” to not just be about standout details and functionality, but about making people feel safe in spaces where they spend a lot of time.

The first order of business: Clean it up. Bring in the dumpsters and do an office cleanup, first ridding it of clutter, then either doing a deep-dive disinfect or hire a professional cleaning service to disinfect.  We know viruses and germs can’t linger that long, but a totally clean environment will go a long way to having a fresher start and putting employees at ease.

Next up: community spaces. These have been embraced and celebrated by offices in the last two decades, and reconfiguring them will help put minds at ease. Office plans should be reviewed, with this as an opportunity to shift people around and create new seating layouts that give employees more space, eliminating any pinch points. Tight, small conference rooms should be repurposed as individual or one-on-one meeting spaces. If your office has any outdoor space, make sure it’s being used to its full advantage.

Furthermore, the COVID crisis has been a big experiment in workplace technology. Make sure that virtual tech and office WiFi are up to date and ahead of times to ensure productivity everywhere. And review lighting to make sure it’s conducive throughout the whole office.

While large gatherings, like company social events and big meetings, will take a short-term hit, make sure that direct, audio conversations are still happening. E-mail and chats, as fantastic as they are for getting work done, can’t replace live communications when it comes to building company culture—so don’t let talking fall by the wayside.

When employees come back, keeping up with daily cleaning and disinfecting will be essential to show them this wasn’t just a passing warning.  And make items like sanitizer, wipes, and tissues available at multiple points throughout your workplace.

Next

COVID-19 has forced a major work-from-home experiment across the world, and its effects will be seen in offices once things begin to shift back to the norm. While remote work is not without merit (and has seen a dramatic rise over the past decade with the advent of technology that puts people more in touch than ever), the virus won’t make it the long-term new normal—but it will be for the foreseeable future. We already see discussions taking place and patterns forming that will impact all of us and our public spaces—both in workplace and hospitality.

Over the next year or so, businesses will begin to question the need for face-to-face meetings and business travel, and will assess the effectiveness of virtual tools during the crisis—meaning that tech will only improve as companies strive to make virtual meetings and collaboration easier. Looking forward, design-centric responses to the pandemic will serve workplaces well in years to come, whether it’s flu season or day-to-day health and wellness maintenance.

Merging the Physical and Digital

Many companies will use the virus as a learning opportunity, and further embrace technology and telecommuting—meaning that their home-base offices will need to take this into account in their designs. Spaces will need to blend physical and digital, incorporating more screens and technological capabilities for people to work from all over.

Smart technology, which has always been critical in workplace design, will continue to advance—and it will become even more crucial for people to have the highest-quality access and connections in every corner of their offices and homes. Design will have to ensure access and power points, even in what may have been unlikely places in the past.

New Considerations

Offices spaces themselves will also undergo an industry hit as this quick pivot taught all of us how working virtually can still be productive.  As a result, employers are going to be looking at workplace and leased space differently, considering how they can perform with different workplace scenarios (accommodating more remote workers, hiring more contract employees rather than full-time ones).  In the longer term, this will mean businesses looking for smaller footprints, and leasing less square footage.

Fully open office plans have been under attack in recent years for reasons of productivity and distraction—but now we need to seriously consider how they impact germ spread and overall wellness. Roughly 70% of American offices have some variety of open-office plan, and over the last two decades, individual workstation size has shrunk by about 25%, and densely packed spaces without barriers do cause germs and viruses to spread more quickly. This will likely be top of mind for many companies post-COVID—the open-plan office may not go away, but it will evolve significantly.

It’s all about planning a workspace that allows for interaction and community spaces, but has plenty of individual space as well—for both physical and mental health—and keeping those community spaces clean. As cubicle walls have come down, workers have been put more display, and their physical defense against germ spread has decreased. Workstation size will change, with the “6-foot” guideline becoming the new norm. And hotel-desking will decrease, as it’s more conducive to the spread of viruses and germs and doesn’t let employees feel like they “own” a space. Making sure that people have a landing spot of their own encourages them to keep it clean, maintained, and contained. For design and space-planning firms, every office will be a balance of creating enough space and barriers without reverting to the traditional private-office model.

More distancing in general will become common as well. Hallways and stairways will become more generously sized. There will be fewer tight seating clusters in common areas, and they’ll be spread further apart. And conference rooms will be more plentiful and laid out differently to create more breathing room.  All of these things will be done in the mindset of not wasting space—it will be all about finding that balance.

Finally, surface materials throughout all environments are going to see a dramatic shift. Non-porous, durable, easy-to-clean surfaces will take top priority as we’ve learned how long germs can stay on many materials. Copper and vinyls will overtake stainless steel and soft fabrics, and materials that can hold their own against frequent antibacterial wipes and sprays will reign supreme.

Impacting Habits

Everyone will be headed back to work with new health habits in mind—more disinfecting, more hand-washing. There are ways to encourage those wellness habits that are branded and in keeping with space design, adding to both aesthetics and functionality.

Companies will begin to have wellness-promoting messages everywhere, and will be looking to personalize them to the company style. Branded and well-designed dispensers for soap and sanitizer and design-focused signage offering health reminders are just the start. There will be designated, designed spaces for health products (from disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers to first-aid boxes) that make them easy to access but also fit into the workplace design seamlessly.

There’s also bound to be a higher overall focus on community wellness. Rather than the “work-meets-play” amenities that were popular early in the century, companies are going to be looking to provide “work-meets-wellness” spaces, which impacts design decisions. Companies will be embracing any outdoor spaces that they have, bringing in more biophilic elements for air circulation, and looking for spaces for in-house gyms, fitness classes, and promoting socialization between colleagues—all in spaces that will need to be reinvented with distancing recommendations in mind.

With this generation spending more time in offices than any other in history, changes will have to be put into effect to reflect the chaos caused by COVID. This crisis will not be soon forgotten, and will change the face of how and where we as a society do business—let’s use this time to prepare to make employees and everyone who visits workspaces feel safe and confident.

As we published this post, the New York Times also released an excellent piece looking towards what’s next in workplaces. Get their take here.