Now that workers have been translating their homes into workspaces for months, one question is on the minds of many: when can we go back? But post-COVID office space will require careful planning and strategic changes, and the return to office life will require changes to the workspace itself, both big and small.
“Don’t make decisions in the eye of the storm,” says Jill Duncan, principal and director of place performance in HKS Architects‘ Advisory Services Division. Instead, she suggests determining your staff’s comfort level, refining for continuous improvement, and planning for the long term. And to do that, you’ve got to ask two more questions: why and how.
“The real question, now, for us is what is the reason to go back to the office?” says Christopher Goggin, design director, studio director, and principal at Gensler.
Why Keep The Office?
For many corporate workers, doing “heads-down” work, as Duncan calls it, is possible to do from home. She says building trust and social connection, and creating together as a team cannot: “The component of culture can’t be nurtured by Zoom.”
Goggin points out that some client interfacing, like charettes with corporate headquarters, are tricky to translate virtually, too.
“As we design workplace, there’s a variety of key places for people to collaborate and learn,” he says. “Social activity in a workplace is extremely important to emotional wellbeing, culture, and morale.”
In that same spirit — and as workers have become accustomed to integrating their personal-life activities with their work lives — Cityscape Studios, a boutique office building near downtown Fort Worth, is offering tenants access to a personal gym, shared kitchen and break rooms, a rooftop lounge, and more.
“During the coronavirus pandemic, many have found themselves working from their kitchen tables or living room couches, but Cityscape Studios offers socially distant spaces with state-of-the-art amenities,” says a spokesperson for Cityscape Studios.
But beyond amenities, it’s the protocols that will truly allow for a return to the office. Duncan suggests things like a rolling re-entry of workers; limiting visitors to one floor within your office; having designated seats and extra sanitation stations; and of course, wearing a mask and social distancing.
Many workplaces are already adding practices like temperature checks upon entry or health questionnaires prior to entering the space. Duncan says to expect those practices for at least the next six to nine months.
Goggin says that staggering workers’ hours and days and incorporating touch-free technology are also key factors. Though motion-sensor soap, water, and towel dispensers are already common in bathrooms, more improvements await.
“An airport is an example of a restroom that’s perfectly configured, because it’s got no doors,” he says.
Technology in The Office Space
Touch-free technology can extend to receptionist and entry areas — which, Goggin points out, should be narrowed to one, rather than many.
“Can the door open without my touching it?” he asks.
One answer to that question includes virtual reality — forgoing an in-person “gatekeeper” altogether — or, Goggin explains, sending a QR code to visitors in advance, complete with wifi passwords or any other relevant information.
The elevator is yet another access point where technology can help — and falls under the category Duncan calls “thresholds.” One-way directions have already become common in lobbies, but again, there’s more to be done.
“Many buildings are going to an elevator system where it tells you which cab to go to [based on which floor you’re visiting],” Goggin says. That process can become even more personal through an electronic proximity reader or, again, a QR code.
The Bigger Picture
But at the end of the day, those are all easy implementations to add — some are not so simple.
“There’s a lot of good work being done by our team and the mechanical engineering environment to address how we can retrofit airflow [practices],” Duncan says. “It’s not easy to convert a space.”
Not easy, but worth it. She points to airplanes as an example of how to filter out negative airflow and recirculate clean air.
Despite many of these implementations, the office itself may not look drastically different to the naked eye. “Workplaces, we think, are probably going to shrink — not drastically, but noticeably,” says Duncan.
Never The Same
She says we won’t see a return to private offices, despite the complications an open concept now presents — rather than space desks six feet apart, staggering work shifts will be part of the answer to enforcing appropriate social distance.
“Don’t redesign your office based on six feet — that’s a myth,” she says.
With this mix of small implementations, bigger reconfigurations, and changes to our work style in general, it’s clear that office life — and the space in which we live it — has now changed forever.
“It’s a permanent hybrid,” Duncan says.