- Employers need to redesign workspaces for safety and to encourage collaboration and a positive culture
- New, activity-based working schemes can be adapted for post-pandemic office life
- “Staggered workforce” models will drive office design
Since the pandemic began, 6 in 10 American companies have hired new employees, many of whom have not met their colleagues in person or set foot in the office. While remote work will likely be part of the work mix for the foreseeable future—94% of companies report their workers are as or more productive compared to pre-pandemic times—the office experience has been on hold.
As vaccines roll out and employees begin returning to the office in increasing numbers, many companies are plotting return-to-work strategies to safeguard their people. But the office that employees return to may not feel, or function, like the one they left in early 2020, as employers focus on creating work environments with pandemic-level health protocols.
“We’re throwing out formulaic approaches and asking, ‘what is the purpose of the office?’” says Hannah Hackathorn, design principal at Unispace, a global leader in activity-based work design. “We’re realizing that a huge part of it is social contact. People want to be around people.”
Balancing social distancing and social interaction is complex. In the early days of the pandemic, companies with essential workers implemented basic protective measures like regular disinfection wipedowns, plastic sneeze guards, floor markings for physical distancing, one-way hallways, and, of course, the ubiquitous bottles of hand sanitizer.
[Read also: A brief history of the office]
Designers like Hackathorn understand there is much room to improve on those early-pandemic measures. The bigger picture includes:
1. Rethinking the open office
Long before the pandemic, many companies around the world had adopted open-office layouts. Employers embraced it for years, primarily because open offices reduce real-estate costs per employee. Once the pandemic hit, though, many open-plan offices didn’t meet CDC guidelines to protect workers’ health.
We’re throwing out the formulaic approaches and asking, ‘what is the purpose of the office?’
Those federal protocols are vague and give employers discretion to determine appropriate distance requirements. Many companies planning for their employees’ return are adopting simple, low-cost layout tweaks such as:
Other companies are looking at more radical steps to create not just health-compliant offices, but workspaces that people genuinely want to inhabit, says Melissa Hanley, co-founder and CEO of Studio Blitz, a global interior design firm. “Some clients say, ‘We have 450 seats. Make it work,’” she says. “Others say, ‘We have 450 individuals who need to come here and do their best work. How do we design for that?’”
Pre-pandemic, the answer might have been what’s known as an activity-based working (ABW) layout. It’s a concept that reimagines the office as different zones dedicated to different workflows and activities, ensuring autonomy and flexibility for each worker. In an ABW office, traffic flow is designed to encourage spontaneous social interaction, idea sharing, and collaboration.
Can ABW be adapted for a post-pandemic world? Hackathorn and Hanley believe so. But they require adjustments, such as working in assigned workspaces rather than “hot-desking,” and limiting occupancy in ABW zones such as office “cafes,” “libraries,” and “neighborhoods.”
Hanley and Hackathorn say technology will play a crucial role in ensuring healthy interactions. Among the solutions currently in use or development are mobile sensors to monitor space utilization, geo-location apps to track employee interactions in case of an outbreak, and touchless doors, lights, appliances, faucets, and even elevators.
Ultimately, each office design will have to be tailored to an employer’s needs. Hackathorn’s firm, Unispace, recently launched a new design framework called “Propeller” to transition clients from ABW to EBW, or experience-based work. The idea is that the office becomes an “experience destination,” where teams can meet in a safe environment for specific objectives such as onboarding, strategy sessions, or QA sprints on new products.
Physical distancing will be baked, artfully, into the design. “We’re steering people away from scary signage that heightens anxiety,” says Hanley. “Instead, we’re using wayfinding barriers, plants, and even cheeky art on the walls to influence spacing.”
Hanley adds: “We’re leaning into the psychology of design because a sense of safety is going to be hugely important.”
2. A new work-home balance
Reimagining the post-COVID office also means being more flexible about how employees, many of whom have developed a preference for remote working, will do their jobs back in the office. Nearly two-thirds of Americans who have worked remotely during the pandemic say they would like to continue doing so either full- or part-time, according to a recent Gallup survey.
And remote work, it turns out, is good for a business’s bottom-line. A typical employer can save $11,000 annually for every person who works remotely half of the time, according to consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics.
Not surprisingly, many companies are experimenting with “staggered workforce” models in which half of employees may come in only on specific days or weeks, or according to flexible work arrangements that change to suit company needs.
Workers who prefer to be in the office full-time should have that option, Hanley says, because remote work arrangements raise equity concerns.
“Some folks have tiny apartments, kids, pets, or multiple roommates,” or need to juggle complex, multigenerational family members’ needs, she says. “We see the post-pandemic office as a great equalizer so that everyone is on the same playing field to do their best work.”
3. Moving inside out
As companies plot their return to work, many are looking at outdoor workspaces to reduce the spread of aerosolized pathogens via air conditioning systems. Roof decks and outdoor patios are in very high demand, Hanley says. Even office windows that can be opened are driving up leasing costs.
“The new normal is not going to look like the old normal—and that’s awesome,” she says. “Clients are seeing this moment with a great sense of optimism. The house is on fire. Let’s burn it down and build it new.”