The Post-COVID Workplace: What to Expect Now and in the Future

The Post-COVID Workplace: What to Expect Now and in the Future
By: Thomas Quarticelli

As we start to think about a time when we can get back to the office and return to some sort of normalcy in the workplace, whether we are a startup or a well-established company, we will need to understand how we can best operate in a post-COVID workplace environment.

If COVID has taught us anything, it’s the realization that we must adapt, embrace new ways of thinking, learn from this experience, and remain flexible. That’s a lot to grasp. The bottom line is, we will return to the workplace, and the workplace will be different.

Many of us have returned to the workplace in varying degrees. We may be experiencing a hybrid situation working some days in the office and some at home, a totally remote arrangement with the option to come into the workplace as needed, or even a full-time situation with all employees returning to the office.

There is no doubt the perception of what an office should be, has changed. We all know that. But what do we do to make it a more productive workplace, safer than it was before, and provide an environment that can adapt to the future? An environment that transitions and improves from a work from home environment that the majority of us have experienced for close to a year.

Here are some thoughts.

There’s No Place Like Home

Many of us have gotten used to a home environment for working. Although there are obstacles to overcome, such as children engaging in remote schooling, pets barking, household members conducting business simultaneously, lack of the right tools, internet connection issues, or the multiple interruptions that WHF provides, it still has some strong benefits. Home is a safe and welcoming environment. It’s comfortable, warm, light filled, and familiar. Removing traveling from the equation, more time can be spent on working, and less time on travel (along with the added benefit of helping the environment). Those attributes are good things and, in most cases, increase our productivity. It’s important that the new workplace not only embrace the benefits of working from home, but also improve upon it.

Like our homes, the post-COVID workplace needs to be perceived as a warm, inviting workplace and the psychology of color is playing more of a critical role than ever before. The use of colors that create a sense of calmness and a positive outlook, while also reinforcing our need to be connected to the outside environment, can only help an employee’s wellbeing and mindset. Color can set the ‘tone’ for a successful workplace and support a positive and rejuvenating space.

Seating that is comfortable and inviting (think of working on your couch or in your favorite armchair at home) will not only connect us with our home, but will provide opportunities to engage with others in a different and relaxed way. Why sit at a conference room table to meet with prospective employees or clients when a relaxing living room arrangement may serve to foster a more open and productive conversation. This ‘Resimercial’ approach will serve to inspire employees and guests, while creating a calming atmosphere that puts people at ease. Providing different types of furniture in different settings also reinforces wellness, making it more likely to move within the office. Accessory furniture, materials, lighting, and other design elements reinforce this relaxed environment, while reducing stress and making employees happier. Instead of rushing home when the workday ends, this approach tends to keep employees at the workplace longer.

Safety First

With everything we have experienced during the pandemic, employees ultimately want to feel safe in their workplace. We feel safe at home because we control that environment to a certain degree. But in the office, it’s not quite the same. We certainly don’t have the same control. So, what makes a safe environment and how do we reinforce that perception? How do we create an environment that will prove to be safe, post COVID, and also prepare us for a future pandemic? The best approach is to take the unknown factors out of the equation.

A ‘clean’ environment is key, but how do we know how well our workstation, door hardware, touch surfaces and countless other items we interact with on a daily basis, are cleaned? OK – time to put your scientific hat on and stay with me. Post-COVID office design will utilize materials that are self-cleaning while also being safe for the environment. Worksurfaces, countertops, seating and associated fabrics for the office are taking a cue from the medical industry. Antimicrobial and self- cleaning characteristics that limit the growth of bacteria, virus, and fungus are being incorporated into workstations and seating. MicroSilver technology is being incorporated into surfaces that emit silver ions for the lifetime of the material without ever wearing off. It’s a good time to be a scientist, but a good time for us too.

Besides your workstation, it’s likely you will encounter doorhandles, elevator buttons, appliance devices, and other touchpoints within the office. Let’s remember the sobering fact that 80% of infections are transmitted by hands. Simple hardware solutions involve hands-free devices while touch operated hardware may use Silver Ion wraps. These wraps utilized on door hardware reduce bacteria by 99.9%. That’s almost as good as what our parents said about Ivory soap! Elevator buttons and other touchpoints can be covered with self-cleaning skins which provide a continuous self-cleaning surface. Although a rigorous cleaning protocol is still important to assure a safe work environment, utilizing this technology makes these surfaces self-cleaning and puts less emphasis on the worry that a daily cleaning protocol is not 100% effective.

Beyond material choices, the air quality of our post COVID office space is critical. At home, you have the opportunity to open a window or take breaks outside at multiple intervals. That’s not as easy in an office environment. Some solutions to increase air quality, depending on the capability of the HVAC system, involve changing air filters from Merv 8 to Merv 13. More elaborate and effective upgrades involve Bipolar Ionization systems that work with existing HVAC systems. This technology releases ions throughout the space. Ions are naturally occurring outdoors. These ions form bonds with other particles within the space which cluster together. The larger the cluster, the more effective your HVAC filtration system filters them out of the air. With improvements in ventilation, everyone breathes easier, both literally and figuratively.

OK – Everybody Spread Out… and Think Outside the Box

We all have likely heard of the 6’ rule – stay at least 6’ away from others who are not in your household to prevent COVID transmission. So, in an office environment, the simple thought is to spread out workstations and general seating allowing us to be separated by at least 6’. But do we really know if that is the correct distance? And in a post-COVID environment, are we designing a workplace with less densification only to revert back to more densification if conditions change favorably? The answer lies in going beyond the 6’ rule, and designing a space that is flexible and adaptable.

A space that can adapt to changes in densification without modification to the furniture or major construction is preferred. Let’s call it ‘futureproofing’, for lack of a better term. Less physical walls and more space created by flexible, lightweight and adaptable furniture or moveable elements enables the user to best organize the space based upon its current or future needs.

Workstations may be best utilized as ‘free-address’ stations, that is, employees share workstations in lieu of having a permanent one. In lieu of a dedicated workstation, this allows for flexibility in a hybrid workforce and reduces overall real estate needs. Creative orientation and configuration of workstations will keep employees socially distant when required, and easily modified to greater densification when appropriate.

The reception area should no longer serve one function. Incorporating a check-in station within the reception area that allows for safety temperature checks, hand sanitizer, masks and dedicated floor surfaces to remove contaminates from your shoes would be beneficial. Think of the reception area as a high-tech welcome center for guests and employees.

Private heads-down areas will remain an important component of the workplace. We all know how well most of us enjoyed being able to concentrate at home with minimal interruptions. The post-COVID workplace will need to accommodate these private workspaces. The workplace will provide more phone booth type spaces than utilized in the past. Traditional offices will be utilized for not only private areas to work, but also small gathering places, huddle rooms, virtual meeting rooms and other uses. All of these types of spaces will be best served as a more open (vs. enclosed) space with acoustical materials to limit sound transmission.

Technology continues to transform the workplace and improve on how we meet and communicate virtually. The post-COVID workplace will incorporate broadcast studios (small rooms for 2 or 3 people to utilize comfortably and remain socially distant), and open collaborate areas that provide a more comfortable approach to virtually connect with those outside the office (or even inside the office) in an open and relaxed setting. Open collaborative areas offer the best opportunity to meet, stay safe, and provide a relaxed area for working and meeting with others. When privacy is a concern, the use of fabric or metal curtains provide just enough privacy for concentration while being totally flexible. Technology improvements for meeting and communicating will make these areas function better and more efficiently.

Organizing the office into ‘districts’ will be advantageous since it allows for an opportunity for teams to have all the functions of the workplace grouped within their area (i.e. huddle rooms, heads down private areas, copy areas, offices, coffee bars, and other functions) while reducing the threat of entire office contamination if a team member gets sick. Circulation paths within the neighborhood and workplace will widen to not only allow more distance between users but make the circulation path more functional for other uses.

Biophilic design will become even more important in a post-COVID workplace. The need to connect to nature through natural lighting, external views, ventilation, and sustainable earth friendly materials will help reduce stress and enhance creativity.

Who Has the Crystal Ball?

No one can predict the future, but we can learn from the past (and present) as we move towards a post-Covid workplace. We know working from home has worked, to some degree. We know we must embrace technology. We know our workplaces need to be less static and more flexible. We know the home environment made us feel safe and comfortable and we liked that. We know we will continue to connect virtually (both inside and outside the office) and our workplace will need to make that connection easier and more fluid than ever before. We know we will need private and collaborative spaces, and those spaces are best served as open, flexible and acoustically secure areas. We know we work best when we interact with each other, so collaborative spaces and returning to the office will remain important. We know our employees and guests will want to perceive that they are in a safe environment, so everything from the materials we use to how we safeguard those entering the space will be important. We know that what we envision today will need to evolve to something different tomorrow.

So, we know a lot. And with that knowledge, we will create a workplace that meets the functional needs of the office. And we will rely on our creativity to design a destination that exceeds what we thought the post COVID workplace could be. Our inventiveness will produce an environment that will attract talent, providing an atmosphere that is exciting, invigorating, inspiring, memorable and compelling. A place that supports the culture of the company and its mission. A place that looks different and transcends what it was before. A place that will make us leave home.

About the Author

Thomas Quarticelli, AIA is a thought leader for Workplace and serves as Principal-in-Charge for the Workplace Studios of Amenta Emma in Hartford, Boston and NYC. Amenta Emma is a multi-disciplined award-winning architecture and interior design firm. Quarticelli consults and provides design solutions for national companies regarding workplace strategies and mission centric goals.

Featured image via Unsplash

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