Workplaces Post-COVID

What just happened ... ?

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When we welcomed the new decade on December 31, we had no idea how differently our hopes and expectations for the New Year would turn out and how profoundly and quickly our lives would change within merely a few months.

The celebratory, tightly packed masses in Times Square—and many other parts of the world—are unthinkable today and for the foreseeable future. The speed of this transformation has been nothing short of traumatic for all of us. Images of jubilant crowds which used to inspire joy, are now haunting.

Beyond the health crisis and the human tragedy of losing so many to a virus for which we have no cure, the crisis has become economic and political, with the specter of a social crisis likely to follow.

In an effort to contain the financial fallout of this crisis we have to return to productivity, minimizing the health risks that could reignite a new outbreak.

The architectural profession needs to engage with CEOs, economists, sociologists and healthcare professionals to frame and structure a return to work in order to restart the economy.

It is impossible and unrealistic to assume we have the answers. We are in a moment where we have to face the near future without compromising the long term. The measures we begin to take today cannot be a temporary patch that we will eventually remove once everything “goes back to normal.” We know very well … that it may not.

What’s next? Spatial solutions and policies working hand in hand

To look at the microcosm of our workplace and the measures that we are imagining, we need to take a larger-scale look at interconnected social systems, which address density and contagion at the national and international scale, and then translate those insights to individual buildings and interior spaces.

The population in a workplace that is designed for the new social distancing norms of 6ft/2 meters still has to negotiate public transportation and building elevators, where reducing density is much more challenging and has to be managed by public administrations.

Workplaces shape the quality of our lives. We spend more waking hours at the office than we do at home—until recently … and enlightened corporations understand that an investment in the workplace is an investment in human capital. Workplace quality attracts and retains talent, and shapes corporate culture. Human well-being and safety has to be ensured at the physical, professional and emotional level.

Johnson Wax Headquarters by Frank Lloyd Wright
Johnson Wax Headquarters, an iconic example of innovative office design by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1939, Racine, WI, US. Photo Library of Congress/Unsplash

How companies navigate the new, unknown curveball that has been thrown at all of us, should still be a reflection of their same core values, for the immediate and for the distant future.

From reactive to proactive and flexible

The last few decades have seen office planning be shaped by a growing focus on brand expression and talent attraction, while balancing density issues and real estate costs. A health crisis, and future disruptive events caused by diverse risks—such as climate change—must now be factored into this equation. There is currently a danger of overreacting, and of generally only being reactive. We need to challenge assumptions and prepare to be flexible and adaptable.

Consulting firms like BCG, McKinsey and in particular Cushman & Wakefield, as well as manufacturers like Steelcase, are researching and writing about the challenges for and demands on leadership in this transformed workplace.

C&W has piloted a test project in their Amsterdam office by implementing a series of spatial solutions and guidelines entitled, “The 6ft office”.

The near future workplace hypothesis

Many of the proposed solutions from recent publications are intended to prevent contagion between people at work, which in broad strokes can be summarized in the following buckets:

  • Communication of new policies and regulations to visitors and employees through a concise and clear graphic communications program explaining the rules.
  • Reduction of occupancy to make the appropriate distancing possible with floor plans laid out with an imaginary 6ft/2 meters circle around each seat and adaptation or elimination of communal areas.
  • New products like multi-size, surface-mounted sneeze guards, workstation dividers, wall and floor-mounted sanitizer dispensers and elbow-activated door handles are already proliferating.
  • The management of circulation to avoid encroaching on oncoming individuals with routes marked on floors and walls.
  • A limited number of shared, touched surfaces with increased cleaning and sanitation policies.
  • Training of a dedicated group to manage and enforce policies that are new and unfamiliar.
Working at home
Working at home will continue to become a real option in the future. Creative Commons-CC0_Photo by Burst/StockSnap

Looking a bit further

It’s impossible to make intelligent prediction as we navigate and identify all of the unknowns of this unprecedented crisis. The best approach is to plan for continuous flexibility, at the spatial and the policy level. For example, we might encourage leaders to:

  • Build in technology so that a reduced density reception lobby can double as a meeting space between colleagues at home and at the office, and equip underutilized areas with additional workstations.
  • Evolve available technologies to create a seamless connection between the analog and the virtual (remote) workplace.
  • Make work from home a real option with the same career advancement possibilities.
  • Plan spaces and specify materials for maintenance and sanitizing without damage.
  • Develop apps that provide controls from one’s own cellphone, such as accessing a space or for calling an elevator.

Workplace design is at the intersection of value creation, technological advancement, generational change, sociology, psychology, brand identity, and space planning, influenced and shaped by all disciplines in different proportions depending on corporate needs and culture.

It has to enable upcoming and inevitable change, while safeguarding human well-being, building (fortunately) on one of mankind’s strongest assets … our ability to adapt.

Main image: Knoll Propeller Collection is a comprehensive system based on flexibility and adaptability for all types of offices by Emanuela Frattini/EFM Design. Photo © EFM Design

 

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