What People Can Expect From Their Workplace Post-COVID-19

Drawing on observations and experiences gleaned from decades of designing office environments, Martin Goldstein predicts some substantive shifts in what people can expect from the return to the workplace.

An extra 20 minutes of sleep. Daily meetings in shorts conducted via Zoom. Celebrating birthdays and long work weeks with a virtual team happy hour. These are some of our new realities during a global quarantine.

Around the world, companies and their employees have had to quickly adapt to the challenges of completely remote working. Despite the challenges and technical glitches (double-booking the office conference line, forgetting you’re on camera, etc.), organizations are staying connected and, in many cases, finding new ways to maximize their productivity.

That is not to say that any of this feels normal at this point. While we are all making do as best we can, there is a growing sense that things will not be the same after this. The big question is: will we all return to the workplace? What will corporate America learn from the “great distancing of 2020?” And how will this pandemic influence office design of tomorrow?

In addition to the basic human need for social interaction, most professionals’ work makes contact with their teams a necessity. Regardless of size or function, we still have peers and direct reports to meet with. Professional services still need to be completed. Training still needs to occur. The culture of an organization, how people collaborate and develop soft skills that will allow them to advance in their careers – all of these still largely depend on face-to-face interactions. And not all of that can be done via video conference.

That doesn’t mean we aren’t in for significant changes. Great office design has always been largely based on people – how they work, what they do, and reflecting what inspires them to be at their best. That will not change in a post-COVID-19 world. But the things people need to feel safe and supported in their new reality will. Drawing on observations and experiences gleaned from decades of designing office environments, I predict some substantive shifts in what people will expect from their office.

Coming Back Together

As the economy has boomed over the last decade, space has become more expensive and square footage allotted per employee has generally reduced. At the same time, the large private offices and sea of endless workstations that used to be the norm have given way to more attentively crafted open office concepts (some more effective than others). Even before the guidelines about social distancing came out, complaints about employees feeling too close to their coworkers, about noise and a lack of focus areas had given rise to concerning, albeit somewhat hyperbolic, headlines about the death of the open office.

So, are we all headed for a return to the workplace with single-occupancy offices or high-walled cubicles? Probably not, but here are a few changes that may impact the workplace in the not-too-distant future:

A Renewed Premium on Personal Space

Now that our proximity to other people is top of mind, it may be difficult for many to return to close quarters. While blended workplace strategies with varied types of layouts can be powerful tools when tailored to an organization, fewer private offices and smaller workstations may present a challenge going forward. I certainly don’t think that a complete over-correction is in store, but I believe we’ll see a strong desire to spread people back out. The perception of what is safe and a reasonable expectation of personal space has changed, and we will have to address it. This may cost some leasing dollars – on slightly larger suites, for example, that provide bigger workstations – or tenant improvement dollars to trade some workstations for micro, 7’x9’ private offices. We may offset those increased costs by adding fewer huddle rooms and reducing other smaller gathering spaces. It’s all a worthy sacrifice to make in order to respect and preserve each organization’s cultural balance, which may start to come with a premium on social distancing.

Search for Quiet

If there’s one thing I have come to value about temporarily working from home, it’s sound – or lack thereof. With the exception of the occasional family interruption or bark of our new puppy (bad timing), heads-down work has been much quieter – an experience shared by many on our team and by our clients. That really helps with productivity. I expect once we return to the workplace, that we’ll see a renewed focus on implementing smarter, more strategic soundproofing strategies that limit distractions and promote the productivity we all found at home.

More Home Work

Depending on the success of this large-scale remote-working experiment we’ve all been thrust into, it is possible we could see more flexible work-from-home policies. This could include a renewed push in corporate America for folks who aren’t tethered to shared or sensitive physical files that have to remain in the office. As it turns out, video chat can actually be handier than a phone call in many instances. For example, a Google Hangouts call allows you to read facial expressions and social cues better than a phone. We could see fewer in-person meetings, which might be significantly more efficient than the relentless rush around the city that we have all grown to accept as the cost of doing business.

Less Space Sharing

If more professionals begin to work from home, one might think we could see less need for individual workstations and more free address hoteling. However, sharing workstations might present too much contact with other people’s germs and could become too taboo for more hoteling to make sense. For the same reason, it’s possible that many mobile warriors might not frequent the co-working spaces or local coffee shops as much as before to get their work done, due to the high traffic and concerns about increased contact with unknown people.

 

Greater Emphasis on Health and Wellness

Whether or not you subscribe to the hype, health and wellness has long been increasing in significance in office design and critical to corporate recruiting and retention. While it’s widely recognized that employees need both calm (to support mental health) and comfort (to support physical health) to produce their best work, this pandemic will prompt additional – partly more mechanical – design changes. Air purifiers with HEPA-rated filters will likely make their way into many more offices while landlords will evaluate how current heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems can be optimized to create an environment that limits the transmission of infectious diseases. Similarly more anti-microbial surfaces might be warranted, particularly for cabinet pulls, door knobs, and hardware. We may also see more building features designed to limit contact – touch-free doors and faucets, etc.

It’s impossible to predict exactly what will come from moments like this, but if this time teaches architects, designers and end-users anything, it is that we need to strongly factor the human experience into our design strategies – the way people will feel in spaces as we come together again will make all the difference in whether they want to come back day after day into their workplace. The fact is that there will be new questions for designers and stakeholders to ask after we all return to the workplace and try to get back to normal. Depending on the work each company needs to do each day (and personal interpretation), the answers will vary.

Despite all of our social distancing, I’m confident that the workplace will survive…and even thrive. Maybe this next generation of workplace design will bring us just a little closer together despite spacing apart a bit more, and perhaps our interactions will become a touch more meaningful than they have been.

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