A&D Organizations Weigh In On Returning To Work And The Future of Design

WDM readers want to know how A&D organizations think workspace design is changing and their thoughts on how to return to work. Check out the interesting points of view from H. Hendy Associates, Stantec, and Ware Malcomb

Image from Information Ae

As a follow up to our inquiries about the future of workspace with our CRE friends, we also reached out to a few of our trusted correspondents from the A&D community. We are finding concurrence that health, wellness, and the safety of the work environment will be front and center as designers tackle the reboot of office space as companies plan to bring their employees back to work. The type of work and how people will plan when and where to do their work still remains to be seen. We are confident that the office is not dead, but will be resurrected in many new and creative ways. The following A&D experts shared their thoughts:

Jennifer Walton, Principal/Project Director, H. Hendy Associates, Newport Beach, CA

Pablo Quintana, Design Principal, Stantec, Washington, DC

Cynthia Milota, Director of Workplace Strategy, Ware Malcomb, Chicago, IL

WDM: What has been the most common changes that your clients have asked for as you work with them to update their spaces to meet new health/safety concerns?

Jennifer Walton: Wellness has been at the top of everyone’s mind and that has been a pleasure for me as it is a real passion. The invisible has become visible during this pandemic and questions such as: Is the air clean? Are the handles I just touched clean? Is the company prepared for this and how resilient is the company? These are the questions on peoples’ minds. There are a lot of behaviors that are developing that will ultimately lead to healthier habits.

People are using the stairs, so they do not have to be in a confined elevator space with others. The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) has come out with a Health Safety Rating that addresses features this pandemic has brought to the forefront. This is a lead in to getting your space WELL certified, so the features addressed in the Health Safety Rating directly translate to future WELL certification. Many of our clients are in the process of getting their spaces certified and/or health-safety rated.

Pablo Quintana: Two words: Density and Distancing. Clients are asking for new or updated planning layouts that define maximum and minimum people densities, taking into account what life will be like until a vaccine is developed and widely available. In most cases this translates into a combination of strategies that include physical separation (the six-feet rule), staggered schedules, and remote work policies. Through these strategies, clients are looking to mitigate risks associated with high density work environments that could result in unsafe at-work behavior. In addition to lower densities, collaboration spaces are being re-imagined. Specifying individual chairs in lieu of sofas and group seating pieces allow users to collaborate in lounge areas while still being able to maintain safe social distances. These changes will have a lasting impact on future workspace planning for years to come.

Cynthia Milota: More than ever before, clients are willing to spend the time to get to the “why” behind their workplace questions: whether it’s the tactical “return to work” plans of making the space healthier/safer to the more long-term strategic thinking of what sort of an office does our organization need and where should it be located. In unprecedented numbers, our clients are looking to data and evidence to guide their decisions. Companies like AViD Insight and Workforce Assessments are making high quality survey tools accessible to projects of all sizes and budgets.

The notion of premortems and pilots to test ideas are seeing a resurgence as organizations understand the opportunity at hand to re-make their workplaces and the urgency to get it right for their people and their business. All this is good news for the workplace design industry, who has been seeking more widespread use of data and analytics to guide project recommendations and decisioning.

Office interactions will never be the same – the focus will be on how to collaborate safely. The jury is still out on what this will look like.

WDM: What is the most creative/unusual request you have gotten about a space redesign?

Jennifer Walton: It has been interesting to see how every company expresses different needs. Some companies are bringing employees back just for collaboration and innovation days and remaining mostly offsite. Other companies are having days where employees come into the office on certain days to stay connected. Online meetings such as Teams and Zoom have been convenient and efficient, and the pace of these meetings tend to go quicker than they would in person. We believe these meetings will continue after the pandemic and creating spaces for them is important. Zoom rooms with perfect AV setup, sound quality and a spectacular background has been a fun request. They do not take up a lot of room and can be utilized for focus time and just phone calls.

Pablo Quintana: Sensor-activated and touchless doors are becoming more desirable, particularly in high traffic areas like points of entry/egress, restrooms, and conference rooms. One hospitality client asked us to research retina scan technology for the main entry of their new headquarters building. I immediately thought of a scene from Mission Impossible or CSI playing out daily as people “check-in.” We are increasingly leveraging the power of technology, both software and hardware, to enhance the work experience and to keep us safe. Just like the planning changes listed above, new technologies will have a profound impact on the way we engage with both the physical and virtual workspace.

Cynthia Milota: Some of the most interesting requests we are receiving from clients surround their interest in how employees are using the spaces as they slowly return to the office. What is the employee experience about: now and in the future? The thinking is less about re-adapting and more about re-inventing the notion of office. The redesign of spaces is looking to ramp up the brand potential and finally make the commitment to create an office destination. Clients are expressing a renewed sense of curiosity and possibility for their physical offices. For certain, technology, health/wellness, safety, security, and sustainability will be integral in the re-imagined office models. Bottom line for office redesign, make the space worth returning to.

WDM: Are there any new materials or products you have seen that are working well for your clients in re-designed space?

Jennifer Walton: Handsfree devices have been a silver lining during this pandemic. Many landlords are upgrading their buildings to incorporate this type of equipment. Hands free elements also help create a more inclusive environment. These include automatic doors, voice-activated elevators, touchless fixtures in the restrooms and items you can operate from your mobile device. Mobile devices are also being used to control everything from HVAC, access into spaces, lighting and even your office phone system. Many companies already have app companions to their products so it’s just a matter of downloading and training employees on how to use them. For example, Crestron, a purpose-built smart phone app converts touch screen functions in a room by putting them into a new mobile UI designed for personal devices allowing employees to control a room using their own phone versus a shared device.

Pablo Quintana: Bleach and solution-cleanable fabrics are in high demand. The textile industry has done a big push in the past few years to make bleach-cleanable fabrics beautiful and more like typical woven fabrics, allows us to easily incorporate this requirement into the workplace setting. Companies like DesignTex are making great hybrid fabrics that maintain a “resimercial” feel while meeting new cleanability guidelines.

Cynthia Milota: Our strategy clients want access to information and workplace apps are finding new favor. Yes, there’s nothing new about workplace apps for space utilization, reservations, housekeeping, work orders and conference room reservations. But increasingly we are seeing our smaller clients turning to apps for the tactical return to the office health screening and desk reservations. Industry leaders in workplace reservation systems such as Condeco and Space IQ have able to scale their offerings for projects of all sizes and budgets. While lesser known firms like Robin and Desk Flex offer similar services. The health pre-screen feature requires users to successfully complete a wellness survey before the system will allow them to make a reservation. And check in features which include geo-fencing require no user interaction and simplify the contact tracing process.

With these comments in mind we will be looking for stories that more fully look into these emerging trends and seeing how workspaces evolve to meet the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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