The post-pandemic office may take many cues from hospitals and clinics. For example, health-care facilities are designed to house and move numerous people while minimizing the spread of contagious diseases.
“All health-care spaces provide numerous opportunities to wash or sanitize hands, which is easy for workplaces to emulate,” Bala states. “The shift in thinking is not so much related to equipment as it is to a renewed goal of providing healthy work- places that promote occupant wellbeing.”
“There are tactics, like sign-up shifts limiting the amount of people in the space at any one time, setting up protocols of self-diagnosis, mask wearing, temperature taking, and more cleaning and sanitizing,” Gregga points out. “In addition, offices will need to provide cleaning stations for people to sanitize their desks. People will be spaced more than 6-feet apart, and they won’t hold in-person meetings with people outside the organization. HVAC systems will need to be updated to include higher-rated MERV filters and additional ventilation.”
Part of the office evolution will certainly be behavioral. Building managers will need to add signage and proper distance markers, as well as manage directional flow of people through halls and other common spaces. And, along with other rules of the road found in employee handbooks, it’s likely companies will have policies related to COVID and other contagions. Employees may be required to communicate any symptoms or contacts and—at long last—be discouraged from coming to the office when they are sick.
The Air in There
The other element of the changing office will be the physical operation of the office itself. There are concrete steps that can be taken in existing buildings to make spaces safer for those who occupy them.
“In the past, we accepted that employees would spread their colds and we made minimal effort to control the spread of germs,” Marin explains. “Considerations that go into the design of medical facilities are something we will see being increasingly adapted into office design. Everything is carefully considered in terms of hygiene, from furniture to air distribution to materials used across surfaces. Materials are selected to minimize contamination.”
“Bringing in more fresh air is a critical strategy that is achievable now in most workplaces. Those planning future office projects should make optimizing indoor air quality a priority because its positive impacts on employees will continue well beyond the pandemic,” Bala suggests. “Companies at all budget levels should assess their HVAC systems to make sure they are providing sufficient, constant fresh air. We recommend caution before adopting high-end strategies or making radical changes to a space without an engagement period to ensure a proper alignment of spatial function and business strategy.”
“One of the easiest fixes is revisiting the air distribution in an office,” Marin notes. “This can mean being more proactive with changing filters and installing secondary air-cleaning devices. Another economical solution is creating larger spaces for individuals and increasing separation between workspaces. These are things you can do quickly without having to rethink the entire design of an office space.”
Post-Marner offers a number of budget-friendly suggestions that can help in most any existing office environment. “Purchase air purifiers, electrostatic cleaning supplies and HEPA filter vacuum cleaners,” she remarks. “Each of these items retails for less than $1,000 and is readily available.”
Ultimately, a combination of solutions in building operations and employee behavior will physically mitigate the transmission of the virus in office buildings and provide the assurances necessary to occupants. If people don’t think their office is taking the proper steps to be safe, they won’t come in. Design and psychology have equal roles to play.
“Occupant comfort is huge. When we design medical facilities, we do so in a way that makes people feel safe. Our office environments need to create a similar sense of ease,” Marin says. “Reducing the amount of people in a given space is crucial. Other steps to take include minimizing the use of conference rooms, setting up multiple coffee stations and increasing separations between individual workspaces. Offices can also help employees feel safe by hiring full-time cleaning staff.”
“Everyone should feel safe and supported in their workplace,” Gregga declares. “A mix of good protocols, like mask wearing, temperature taking and cleaning, is as important as any fancy design. The way employees deal with sickness will change. No one will come into work sick anymore, which was a regular occurrence in the past. I also think we will all adopt a more hybrid approach that assumes everyone might work from home a few days of the week.”
“The pandemic has set a paradigm shift in motion that will forever change the way we think about the workplace,” Bala notes. “Anxiety reduction and other mental-health considerations will be a big factor for decision-makers. Data and technology infrastructure for buildings will be critical to the success of hybrid approaches. The workplace of the future will not be unrecognizable, but it will not go back to some previous idea of normal.”
“The silver lining in this pandemic is an increased awareness of health and work/life balance,” Post-Marner says. “Employees will demand that companies change to provide healthier air quality and a more hospitable work environment.”