Progressive Workplace Design In A Post-Pandemic World

John Cetra explores what the workplace needs post-pandemic to attract new talent and draw employees back to their offices.

As the world continues to mull over when and how we will return to “normal” life again, a large part of the discussion involves the return to the workplace. Tenants, landlords and design professionals alike are wondering how many days a week people will visit the office, how far apart they will sit, how amenities should be used, what common space design will look like, and more. Ultimately, we will want to be together again, but how do we do so in a way that makes people feel both productive and safe?

As architects and interior designers, we are fortunate to work with progressive developers who partner with us to bring big ideas to life and incorporate the thoughtful, health-and-wellness-focused design elements that last the test of time. While no one could have foreseen a global pandemic forcing us away from our office spaces temporarily, those of us who have been designing workplaces for long enough know that life events and news cycles spur trends and speed them up faster than they ever would have arrived on their own. As creatives, we observe and design accordingly.

So, what does the future of workplace look like? Or better yet, what does the workplace need post-pandemic to attract new talent and draw employees back to their offices and workstations?

Outdoor Work Space

Outdoor workspace will arguably be the “it” amenity of 2021 and beyond. Once considered a rare perk for select businesses and industries, integrating outdoor space into an urban workplace setting is becoming the new norm. More than just a value-add we’ve grown to appreciate even more over the past year, this element may in fact drive many leasing decisions going forward. Private outdoor terraces allow individual tenant companies the opportunity for their employees to properly socialize in a safe way, and to enjoy a change in environment as they take a break from their desks. Private calls, team meetings, happy hours and more can all take place outside, and office buildings designed with these spaces could be at a significant advantage in markets across the country.

Development and design teams should consider including a mix of shared and private outdoor spaces in office projects, to maximize appeal. We’ve incorporated private terraces into a number of our recent workplace designs, including the new the Offices at Essex Crossing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side – a priority to the lead office developer, Taconic Partners. Part of the larger Essex Crossing megadevelopment, the 5-story office component of one of the mixed-use office buildings – located at 145 Delancey Street – offers a large south and west-facing private terrace on the fifth floor, dramatically enhancing desirability of the workplace on that level. Similarly, our new Corporate Commons Three mixed educational and commercial project on Staten Island has a green roof that will be cultivated to grow local fruits and vegetables, to be used in the building’s ground floor restaurant. Spaces like these are proving to be a major point of differentiation in the office market.

Large Floor Plates

As employers navigate their return to office space, it is also likely that buildings with expansive floor plates will have an edge over those with smaller footprints. As commercial real estate experts have indicated is particularly valuable in the post-pandemic world, large floor area allows for maximum flexibility and customization, including any need to accommodate social distancing as needed within an individual workplace. Of course, extra room to breathe also creates opportunities to incorporate more of the health and wellness-focused amenities that will likely become more common. Employers might look to add lounges, spas, or yoga rooms for their own teams, rather than relying on areas shared among all building tenants.

Large floorplates enable architects and interior designers to create a number of different office layouts that suit tenants with diverse needs. The Offices at Essex Crossing are nearly square, with a 200-foot-by-200-foot footprint. As a result, the building’s northern side, for instance, features office areas that run the entire length of the building. The Offices at Essex Crossing are nearly square on the building’s upper commercial stories, with the fourth and fifth floors comprising a roughly 200-foot-by-200-foot footprint. On every commercial level, the building’s northern side features office areas that run the entire length of the building, providing many different ways to lay out an office.

Certain structural approaches lend themselves best to this type of flexibility. The Offices at Essex Crossing are situated about a compact and efficient central core design giving tenants the most room for adaptable layouts, and allowing each workplace to have multiple entrances – again facilitating the kind of distancing that may be necessary in the short and medium term and creating numerous options for tenants to organize their floors and office spaces.

The Hunt For Daylight

Access to natural light is proven to boost mood and enhance physical and emotional wellbeing, and as floorplates expand and some office spaces extend deeper towards building cores, it will be more important than ever for architects and their clients to implement smart daylighting strategies. Floor-to-ceiling windows are likely to become more common, and the value of this design approach is clear from buildings like 145 Delancey Street and Corporate Commons Three, where floor-to-ceiling glazing on all sides ensures that natural light is found in almost every interior space. Daylighting also reduces the need for artificial lighting, which brings a beneficial reduction in energy use.

There is such a thing as too much light, though, and many have had the experience of encountering an uncomfortable daylight hot spot. Shades are one option to alleviate this, but studies have shown that they are used inconsistently[1], and we’ve found that once people pull shades down, they almost never raise them again – canceling out the benefits of natural light. A better, emerging strategy is to specify advanced glazing that diffuses daylight in a more even fashion, allowing it to penetrate deeper into an interior space and eliminating hot spots closer to the façade.

Healthy Systems – HVAC 2.0

Any discussion of forward-looking workplace design must also highlight the role of mechanical systems. The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of a sophisticated approach to ventilation, and state-of-the-art, tenant-controlled HVAC systems to combat airborne mold, bacteria and germs will be more prevalent moving forward in both new buildings and retrofit projects, as clean air must be maintained to the highest standards. Existing systems can be retrofitted to add more robust filtration and/or ionization systems, and ultraviolet irradiation components can be installed within existing air plenums to destroy germs. Since we know that airborne pathogen spread may be affected by humidity level, it is likely that tenants will seek greater control over humidification as well.

The Office as Part of a Mixed-Use Community

As the office continues to evolve, accommodating evolutions in lifestyle and the way employers and their employees want and need to work, we’ll also see an uptick in large-scale and holistically designed mixed-use communities. These new commercial and lifestyle centers will include office space, residential components, and hospitality and retail, blended together into a three-dimensional neighborhood, a city within a city. A new form of placemaking, this dynamic approach brings exciting opportunities. New York’s Essex Crossing is a great example: this mega-development comprises an interconnected series of buildings with a large indoor market, a movie theater and cultural destinations, apartments and condominiums, and of course, extensive workplace uses.

Such close integration is key to creating a sense of vitality. At the Offices at Essex Crossing, a large and dramatic atrium offers visual connection to the below-grade Market Line space. There is also direct access from office lobbies to the Market Line, so workers can go for lunch without having to go outside – unless they want to. In the same vein, the Offices at Essex Crossing offer direct access to the Broome Street Gardens, a unique and compelling indoor park and recreation area. Similarly, the Corporate Commons Three complex on Staten Island exists as part of a connected mixed-use campus within extensively landscaped grounds. The building itself incorporates a diverse and complementary combination of uses, including a restaurant and a school, whose students can find internship opportunities with companies leasing office space.

More than just office spaces, these ideas and case studies hint at the future of the progressive workplace – a new type of environment where health, wellness, and connectivity are prioritized and take on creative, exciting forms that draw people in and reinforce the sense of belonging and community that feels more important now than ever before. 

[1] Kapsis, Konstantinos & Athienitis, Andreas. (2013). Manually-operated window shade patterns in office buildings: A critical review. Building and Environment. 60. 319–338. 10.1016/j.buildenv.2012.10.003.

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