The Next Now: How Consumer Spaces Are Putting New Norms Into Place

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a series of stages, with far-reaching predictions early on, followed by data and trend-spotting for how the world would be impacted in both the short and long-term—and the day-to-day reality of doing business has had to shift at the same time. Our approach has remained one of proactivity: No matter what business you’re in, don’t sit on your hands and wait; be productive and stay ahead as much as possible. To that end, we provided early checklists that related to your physical space, as well as preparing to welcome employees and consumers back into the fold.

Now that the “what-ifs” have died down, we’re settling into the next, longer-term phase of the “new normal.” Being in the business of designing consumer environments, it’s our job to focus on the right now—while still looking forward to what will be best for our partners later on. We’re creating solutions for 2021 and beyond, and we need to stay smart and alert about which ones will have a positive, lasting impact on consumer spaces. In the absence of a handy crystal ball, we’re taking action to move forward, informed and productive—remembering that there are some positive outcomes from this hard restart that should be part of the future considerations for businesses.

The Right Now for Everyone

As states reopen businesses, the only way to do it is to keep the well-being of employees, customers, and guests in mind. There are a few basic things everyone needs to be doing in the right now:

  • Over-communicate: If there is a positive in all of this, it may be that people are becoming better at communicating through multiple channels. If you’re a consumer-based business, make sure you update your website and social media channels daily with simple, clear messaging. What is open and available today and when? Creative and fun messages aside, consumers want to know if they can come in, when, and what is available. Don’t bypass the basics. For offices with employees, weekly updates and connections for all are an important way to share short-term guidelines and long-term plans (even if those are changing on a weekly basis). Be open, share information, and be honest to both maintain business and help employees be their most productive and effective.
  • Maintain your physical space: If you haven’t done a thorough clean and declutter, do it now. If you have, keep it up. Daily and weekly cleaning and sanitizing is mandatory for every space right now, and personal sanitizing products should stay easily accessible. The initial rush of installing directional graphics has settled into a more straightforward common-sense approach. No need to reprint the CDC or state government guidelines; people are inundated by the available info.  Keep your messaging short and sweet: This is what we’re doing; this is what we expect you to do. A few visual cues in tighter-circulation areas are a helpful reminder, but allow instincts and respect to be the main guide: Too much becomes noisy clutter.
  • Masks: Even where masks aren’t mandated, they should be encouraged or required in common areas. There is a broad spectrum of fear in consumers, and if nothing else, willingness to wear masks is a sign of respect for others.

The Right Now for Restaurants/Hospitality

  • Have specific information available regarding reservations. Do you require advance reservations or allow “walk-in” reservations? Where are seats available?
  • Keep up your takeout, curbside, or meal-kit program, and continue to grow that revenue stream. Are there areas in your space where you cannot have furniture, but you can offer grab-and-go cases or items for retail sale?
  • If you haven’t added touchless tech, do it now. The simple way is to add foot and elbow pulls on entrances and restroom doors. The more advanced way is to upgrade to touchless fixtures as much as possible (manufacturers are giving some great deals right now on the products to do so).
  • Keep up the constant cleaning between guests, and keep guest sanitizing stations available and visible, especially at key areas like entrances, restrooms, and exits.
  • Maximize your outdoor space, but do it the right way. A tent with four tables and arrows all over the ground is not inviting. Add greenery to bring height, color, and dimension and to create some appealing seating zones. If you haven’t been working with your city and/or landlord to reclaim or capture sidewalks, parking lots, etc. for seating, do it immediately. “Patio” is more of a guideline these days.
  • Your indoor space may also feel a bit vacant, with many areas around the country allowing only 50% occupancy. Can you use some of that space to bring some greenery inside, or create a mini-market? Even offering house-made items, cocktail kits, or easily packaged desserts can add the right energy and make use of empty space.
  • If you’ve added a service charge, a set tip, or employee wellness fund charge, communicate that to your guests clearly. No one likes surprises on the bill.
  • Employee management is likely the most difficult thing restaurants are dealing with right now: limited staff, last-minute sick calls, and their own sets of fears and beliefs. As an owner, you have to be a leader, but don’t forget to communicate and practice understanding. As a consumer, please cut restaurants some slack these days. There has never been a more difficult scenario in which to try to run a small business. Now is the time for support, not complaints.
  • Take advantage of new technology to make operations as touch-free as possible, from check-in to payment to keyless entries for hotel properties.
  • Meeting and event spaces and conference rooms need to remain flexible. Don’t make permanent changes; adjust to how to deal with events right now. And can these spaces be used for any other amenities for now?
  • Buffets are on hold for now, and in some cases, maybe for good. Instead, create food stations for pick-up.
  • Shea was recently featured as a national expert on CNN Business, discussing what makes for a pandemic-friendly restaurant, with more tips on creating spaces that are warm and welcoming while staying safe.

The Right Now for Offices

  • Have a plan, and be willing to pivot frequently. There are a lot of questions right now: When and how are you bringing employees back to the office? What is your work-from-home policy and expectations? How will you deal with employees who are unwilling to come in? How are you keeping them safe in the space? What are you allowing in the space for physical meetings? There are a lot of great resources out there, from the CDC to companies like Target. Use that information as a foundation and don’t start from scratch. If you’re looking for a starting point to open your office again, an easy plan of action is to split the employees into onsite groups to manage capacity and ease into daily work life again.
  • Communicate frequently with employees, but given the current climate, now is the not the time to conduct tone-deaf surveys. Some will be reticent to come back, and some are itching to be amongst colleagues. Informed, open leadership and communication are imperative right now.
  • Look to have employees come in to declutter and clean personal spaces. A good way to put this in action is to create a new floor plan and layout/stacking plan and move employees around.
  • Disinfecting stations and cleaning products should be abundant and visible in multiple locations.
  • Minimize people per elevator load. In high-story office buildings, can you work with your tenants to stagger work hours to avoid the 8:00 a.m. rush?
  • Also minimize non-essential amenities. As an employee, expect it. As an owner, it’s too hard right now to offer a community beer fridge and snacks, as well as fitness areas, so don’t be shy about pushing pause on the perks.
  • Working from home was around pre-pandemic, but this has put the trend on steroids. If you’re mandating it, work with employees to ensure their technology and setup is productive and effective. If it’s employee-preference-based, employees need to be prepared to ensure their own setup is effective. With the availability of great gear and technology, there is no excuse for audio issues, or computers that freeze during screen-sharing. Quality of communications and work cannot suffer in a work-from-home scenario.

Looking Forward

As we’re designing for the post-pandemic future, there are several key considerations that should (and will) stick around for all consumer spaces and businesses.

Learnings to Keep:

  • Communications: As we mentioned, we’re seeing better, clear, simple, and frequent communications to employees and guests. Keep it up.
  • Sanitization: Keeping our consumer world cleaner in the long term is a must. We’re working on thoughtful, deliberate design of sanitization and cleaning stations to stick around for good.

What’s Coming:

  • Air filtration systems are a popular topic right now—the easiest route for buildings to take is to retrofit their existing systems to do one of the following:
    • Increase outside air drawn into existing HVAC units
    • Increase filtration rates
    • Extend run hours for HVAC units to continue circulating air through spaces for longer
  • Ultraviolet light has been shown to help kill the virus in the air, but tests are still being done regarding safety when people are around. The jury is still out, so don’t go overboard trying to incorporate into future spaces.
  • Bipolar ionization is an option that creates ions that, when introduced into the airstream, can help kill the virus. Though this technology has been around for a while, it’s now easier on the environment and has more potential for widespread incorporation.
  • Design of space in general will be wellness-focused, with more open space and a lighter, brighter feel. Expect lots of biophilic elements and easy indoor/outdoor transitions.

The most frequent questions we get are with regard to the future of office space and dense-packed urban environments. Will more companies go to a majority work-from-home employee base and downsize offices and square footage?

Well… Yes and no. Companies and positions that can have easily tracked deliverables and productivity may look at this as an opportunity to pay for less square footage. But they must create clear guidelines without preferential treatment, which needs to be maintained long-term. For companies that rely on collaboration and communication, it’s very difficult to be successful and track productivity without face-to-face interaction. As an employee in these types of offices, being present and showing your work and potential is the best way for promotion and advancement.

It’s more likely that companies will scrutinize their sheer number of employees—after furloughs, limiting hours, or limiting roles, they may be able to stay productive and successful with a more streamlined operation—and will downsize for max efficiency.

If urban-based companies decide to move and/or downsize from downtown/urban areas, the ripple effect on the consumer-based industry must be anticipated. There’s much talk about a shift away from urban cores because of fear of density, public transport, and more. This needs to be closely watched, because restaurants and retailers, as much as building owners, will need to be prepared if this talk comes to fruition. We all hope that the business world will rebound and people will be safe before we see these types of long-term changes, but it’s important to prepare.

The plexiglass won’t stay up forever, and that’s why we’ve been staying proactive, creating design solutions for our partners that will not only last but help build consumer trust again. We’ve been working hard and learning as much as we can to maintain our expertise, no matter what’s thrown at us or what the next patterns of change or pivots are to be made.

Good luck out there.