Short and Long-term Solutions for COVID-19 Workplace Design

During this COVID-19 crisis, our community has been tested and our lifestyle forced to change. These moments have led designers to ask challenging elemental questions about where we (used to) spend most of our days: our places of work.

As a business leader or investor, one might be tempted to enact quick, temporary solutions in their facilities to resolve pandemic-related concerns. However, we should really ask ourselves: What core lessons can we learn from current events that, when strategically implemented in our buildings, will end up as long-lasting trends and consequently a solid investment opportunity for the future?

Add Occupancy Sensors, Motion Sensors, and/or facial or voice-activated controls throughout the building for a touch-free solution with an added benefit of energy conservation.

The goal is to keep ourselves and our colleagues safe and comfortable at work. But where specifically should leaders focus their energy and capital? Not sure your office is ready for a complete design overhaul? Responsible measures can still be retrofitted into your current facility. To ensure our workplaces evolve with time, in this article we suggest short- and long-term solutions involving HVAC and electrical components, architectural design, and attention to program and wellness needs.

HVAC and Electrical Solutions

From our design experience in the life-science industry, we understand that personnel flow, HVAC design and standard operating procedures are extremely important to maintain a classified clean space. At an office or any other facility, the same basic principles would apply.

The Solutions for Now

  • Flush the facility building with fresh air based on the design of the makeup/outside air system for 24-72 hours.
  • If possible, change the air filters as an added precaution; follow manufacturer recommendations for filter maintenance.
  • HVAC systems should be adjusted to have increased fresh-air intake, increased after-hours humidity and added HEPA filtration to minimize airborne transmissions.

The Next Steps

  • Replace or purchase a new HVAC system or air-handler with an increased percentage of fresh-air intake and air changes per hour.
  • Choose the filtration system that best suits your facility and occupancy.
  • Replace filters often and train building managers and facilities engineers to become experienced with and understand the systems that are put in place; set protocol for an engineer to schedule and maintain housekeeping and sanitization.
  • Install an efficiently engineered system with ventilation-related strategies, such as dilution, laminar airflow patterns, pressurization, temperature and humidity distribution and control, filtration, and other strategies such as ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI).
  • Utilize innovative technology, such as lighting that can disinfect your environment effectively and continuously. Certain luminaires can routinely treat harmful microorganisms suspended in air, trapped on objects and residing on surfaces. These light fixtures can potentially kill harmful bacteria, at a nominal cost to your facility. (Learn more about Indigo-Clean and SpectraClean.)
  • Add Occupancy Sensors, Motion Sensors, and/or facial or voice-activated controls throughout the building for a touch-free solution with an added benefit of energy conservation.
Integrating visual cues, such as Social Factor by Milliken, can help remind employees it is not business as usual.

Solutions by Design

Amid all the uncertainty of the past few months, one thing has remained certain: protecting you and your loved ones’ health is most important. Secondly, individuals have the power to protect others they interact with by avoiding physical contact. While many will choose to wear masks and gloves upon returning to work and others will simply sanitize their surroundings more regularly, leaders must recognize that implementing “physical distancing” will be a serious consideration for workplace design in the foreseeable future.

How can we design our workplaces to temporarily encourage physical distancing without losing the collaborative, productive work culture we have worked so hard to achieve? As a longer-term solution, how will we prioritize the wellbeing of our team, both mentally and physically?

The Solution for Now

  • Create uni-directional circulation through spaces to avoid immediate contact between individuals.
  • Seat employees at every other workstation in a “checkered” manner.
  • Reduce the number of shared printers, scanners, and administrative tools to discourage use of printing and communal areas.
  • Sanitize entrance and exit doors multiple times per day and provide hand sanitizer within the business.
  • Designate one location for reception and disinfection of deliveries to the building/space.
  • Assign delivery management and sterilization as a task to specific employees.
  • Reduce touch points and increase cleaning: open or eliminate doors from your office design.
  • Consider staggering work and lunch hours.
  • Utilize vertical elements, thresholds and partitions thoughtfully.
  • Install glass partitions, sneeze guards or shields where close and prolonged face-to-face contact occurs between employee and visitor; add glass or acrylic screens to any workstation (cubicle) panels that are 50-inches-high or less.
  • When no physical separation exists, position employees so they are not facing each other.

The Next Steps

  • Take cues from cleanroom design: Reduce horizontal surfaces and minimize un-cleanable nooks and crannies (areas of potential dust settlement).
  • Use modular or stackable furniture with a kit of parts that can be reused, manipulated or reorganized for maximum flexibility in an evolving social environment.
  • Increase use of hard-surface panel tiles as opposed to fabric (easier to clean).
  • Integrate storage within workstations for personal belongings to keep items off the floor.
  • Decrease density of the workforce by reducing persons per square foot at your facility.

What We Need from Our Places of Work

As a leader in your industry and workplace, you are not only responsible for the physical health and safety of your staff, but also their mental wellbeing. After experiencing a work-from-home lifestyle, the work-life balance has shifted for many. The last thing employees want when they return to work is a distressing atmosphere in which they feel restricted and anxious.

To ensure staff members feel positive about their work environment, the initial stage of design programming is absolutely essential when considering any form of office modifications. In effect, the programming stage allows our designers to directly consider the needs of key stakeholders for the project and focus our solutions.

Although people have realized that much of their jobs can generally be fulfilled remotely, a new appreciation has also been discovered for former day-to-day encounters with colleagues, the bouncing of ideas off of peers and building of relationships with clients through in-person communication. In a survey of more than 1,000 office workers, Hana discovered “professionals [most] value meaningful interactions in the workplace” over other social or networking events. When looking for a design solution, we as the designer will perform a programming study to ensure our solution will address the company’s needs, in turn providing a constructive work environment.

Utilize vertical elements, thresholds and partitions thoughtfully.

The Solution for Now

  • Provide a transition from home to work by encouraging remote workdays.
  • Maintain clean work surfaces by making available EPA-approved antimicrobial products and setting up disinfection stations for employees to use throughout their day.
  • Recognize the anxiety in returning to work; communicate transparently and regularly.
  • Introduce and maintain indoor plants for clean air and mental satisfaction.
  • Use botanical installations to naturally direct employee travel, which subtly encourages physical distancing practices.
  • Use friendly visual cues to direct personnel; use clear A/V communications or simple signage.
  • Clearly outline room capacity rules to lessen the density of staff in one space.
  • Remind meeting room users of social-distancing protocols when sitting or congregating in a space.
  • Remind staff to clean their stations and heavily used meeting room devices and pantry components before use.

The Next Steps

  • Introduce systems at the office that allow for easy transitions between remote and in-office work (consider laptops with docking stations, teleconferencing, etc.).
  • Create visitor workstations that prevent personal storage and that are emptied and sanitized between uses.
  • Expose natural daylight and window coverage to maximum number of team members.
  • Introduce recreational or wind-down areas, a meditation room/gym, or a walking track to promote overall immunity and wellness.
  • Introduce water features for a relaxing and peaceful atmosphere.
  • Use living walls and natural partitions to direct travel, disperse occupancy and diffuse sound in shared workspaces.
  • Use color, texture, and material to create a professional yet comfortable setting for clients and employees alike.
  • Strategically place botanicals to filter chemicals and harmful toxins out of the air and communal areas.
  • Choose highly durable, low-maintenance finishes that promote healthy indoor air quality, are easy to clean, versatile, and discourage bacteria growth and germ absorption.
  • Always choose materials that are environmentally friendly to prevent future contact with toxic substances or waste.

Identify Future and Present Design Goals

Understanding how companies are reacting to this pandemic, our overarching recommendations to keep in mind are:

  • Invest in updating your facilities to promote the physical and mental health of yourself and your team members to withstand future storms, gain loyalty and promote the longevity of your business.
  • Consider shorter lease terms and smarter use of space.
  • Create flexible and multipurpose spaces with equipment and furniture that can easily be assembled as a kit of parts, so they can be manipulated to conform with changing environmental and social requirements.
  • Focus on automation. With smart technology, you can develop automated scenes that can be customized to building operations and events with minimal human intervention.
  • Invest in building utilities and operational technologies that enhance the integration, outlook, and control of building and workplace systems.

About the Author

Suchita K. Shah, AIA, NCARB
Suchita K. Shah, AIA, NCARB, manages workplace, hospitality and retail projects for KSD Architects. She is also an active member of both NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction) and NAIOP (Commercial Real Estate Development Association).

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