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Reimagining the Workplace After COVID-19

May 20, 2020 | by Jo Cipolla
Reviewed by real estate expert Jonathan Tootell

Even after people return to their workplaces, even after treatments and/or a vaccine for COVID-19 has been developed, the coronavirus pandemic will have made an indelible mark on every society across the globe. Places where a lot of people gather and co-exist, such as offices and other work spaces, will be transformed. Not only to create a world where mitigating the spread of disease is of the utmost importance, but also in response to the new technologies and ways of living the world has become accustomed to during an international lockdown.

Organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have been putting out guidance like Getting your workplace ready for COVID-19 to help advise on promoting hygiene measures (e.g. regular hand-washing, providing hand sanitizer dispensers) and other best practices as we continue to grapple with COVID-19. But businesses are also trying to think long-term about what their offices will be like further down the road, as the lessons learned from the coronavirus outbreak inform the way workplaces look and operate. Many companies are considering what a pre COVID-19 vaccine or treatment office space would look like as well as reimagining the workplace for employees post pandemic.

Workplace Design

The post-COVID workplace is going to appear very different. The open-plan office design that has been so prevalent in recent years will be getting a major makeover. There has been an increasing trend towards densification of staff in office spaces. The square footage per employee has decreased over time allowing for more employees to occupy less commercial real estate. As it happens, the open-plan office was not to all employees’ liking. With many staff members reporting that they found the noise and lack of privacy that often came with an open office to be detrimental to a productive and happy work life. Fortunately, this means that reimagining office design is likely an improvement that is welcomed by employees.

The World Economic Forum’s Harry Kretchmer wrote that among the many ways COVID-19 will likely change office design will include: larger workstations to facilitate social distancing, more signage, investment in contactless technologies, office rebuilds, better office climate control systems, and increased adoption of co-working and remote working.

It will be a challenge for offices to balance protection with the ability to collaborate, especially if they are trying to keep six feet of distance between employees, but it will undoubtedly be a challenge met with creativity and determination. We anticipate major changes in office design will include:

Assigned desks with clear barriers

Many workspaces have been utilizing an open desk policy, where employees select from whatever desks are available when they arrive each day. Or employees are able to work from a multitude of common or shared areas. The fact that most people use laptop computers has made this kind of mobility possible. However, in the post-COVID era, where we are hyper-aware about the spread of germs, this is a non-starter. Businesses will need to return to assigned workspaces to limit spread.

Furthermore, something reminiscent of the old cubicle designs that have fallen out of favor will need to return, likely in the form of clear plastic barriers installed around parts of workspaces. If an employee coughs or sneezes, these will help keep the germs from getting too far. Work Design Magazine also suggests “re-orienting workstations, so employees do not face one another.”

Furniture that is easy to clean

There are many factors that go into the choice of office furniture, from comfort to cost. Moving forward, one of the most important factors will be how easy it is to clean. Smooth, hard surfaces are most ideal, since they can be easily wiped down.

Open, well-ventilated space for meetings

As more has been learned about the spread of COVID-19, one thing that is certain is that indoor gatherings of many people is the most conducive environment for its rapid spread. This means that businesses will need to think carefully about how they handle meetings or areas where multiple people gather. Having a large open room for meetings, where employees can socially distance while being in the same space, will be far more common than people crowding together in a conference room. Similarly, new technologies for ventilating enclosed rooms are being rolled out in response to the virus.

More workplaces will likely be designed to have outdoor courtyards or large patios to act as meeting spaces for company events such as happy hours or lunch breaks, since it is best for groups to gather outside rather than inside.

Moveable barriers

Mobile barriers can be employed to quickly transform spaces as needed, and will be part of making workplace design more flexible.

Office Technology

Technologies are being developed at an accelerated rate to help deal with the challenges of limiting germ spread. But luckily there are many that already exist, which will need to be adopted on a broader scale.

Hands-free and sensor-based tech (lighting, doors, faucets, water coolers, etc)

Automatic doors, motion-sensitive lighting, and other hands-free technologies will become the norm in most office spaces in our post-COVID world. In addition to helping people avoid picking up germs by touching frequently used surfaces, these technologies can also be very helpful to many people with disabilities.

Team chat software and apps

Many workplaces have already been using programs like Zoom and Slack, but there will be an acceleration of their use in order to help reduce the need for close interaction between employees. It will also be important to ensure that employees have the right hardware and devices to use such apps and software optimally (e.g. to have video conferences that aren’t interrupted by technical difficulties or internet bandwidth issues).

 Cleaning and Safety Protocols

A clean office space has always been important, but now it feels particularly urgent. In a world that has been ravaged by COVID-19, employees must feel confident that their workplace is being thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. This may mean increasing the frequency of professional cleaning, but will also include more disinfecting during the work day. For instance, a normal part of certain jobs (e.g. office manager, reception) could be to disinfect arriving packages and to perform wipe-downs of certain areas of the office.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued advisory guidance that, in addition to emphasizing the importance of following existing rules and regulations, suggests that workplaces do the following:

  • Develop an infectious disease and preparedness response plan
  • Prepare to implement basic infection prevention measures
  • Develop policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of sick people, if appropriate
  • Develop, implement, and communicate about workplace flexibilities and protections
  • Implement workplace controls

Working in the Age of COVID-19

Workplaces after COVID-19 will likely include fewer collegial handshakes, and a lot more disinfectant wipes. In many ways the new normal will just accentuate things we already know are important about health and safety. In addition to speeding up the development of technologies to make our lives easier. Making the workplace more germ-free won’t only mean reducing the possibility of COVID-19, but also more common afflictions like the flu and the cold.

Employees returning to work in the near future will be greeted with an evolving environment. COVID-19 has taught us the importance of patience, flexibility, and a willingness to learn and adapt accordingly—and we will see that reflected in the design and function of our workplaces as they are reimagined over time.

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