Architects and designers are rethinking the workspace for the age of coronavirus
Say goodbye to stainless steel–and hello to outdoor gardens.
The coronavirus pandemic might have some long-term effects on the way we design our offices. As companies look to incorporate better sanitation and implement some of the things they’ve learned during the crisis, many aspects of the office could change–from the materials used for upholstery to the overall layouts of floor plans.
“People are asking existential questions like, ‘What is the purpose of an office?’ ” says Nabil Sabet, engineer and group director at international design firm M Moser. “Some of the habits that we thought would take years to overcome are changing overnight.”
The office as a whole
Keeping the office as germ-free as possible will require some material changes. Surfaces like unfinished wood, soft stone, and stainless steel can be breeding grounds for germs and bacteria, says Nina Etnier, co-founder of New York-based interior designer Float Studio. Offices might turn to furniture made of antimicrobial synthetic materials like Crypton, plus metals like copper and brass for door handles and other high-touch surfaces, she adds.
Other touchpoints, like keypads and control panels for lighting, climate control, and A/V systems, might be replaced with apps on employees’ personal phones, says Kim Heartwell, senior vice president at architectural firm CallisonRTKL.
Ultraviolet lights installed in ducts could purify air before it’s blown out onto the office floor, says Sabet. Architects might even make tweaks like curving the place where the floor meets the wall. This can eliminate corners that collect filth and germs, a practice that some hospitals have been using for decades.
Larger-scale changes may also be coming. With more employees working remotely, some desk space could be converted into more thoughtfully designed open spaces, says Melissa Shelton, president of Swiss design firm Vitra’s North American operations. And companies will seek out offices with more access to outdoor space, says Etnier, both as a means of social distancing and a way of making them more inviting to employees whose alternative is to stay home.
“The office will be purposely designed to be more than just a workplace,” says Shelton. “It will be a community place, a cultural place, a place of learning.”
For the sake of cleanliness, companies might have to reconsider the long-held tradition of assigned desks. Forcing employees to remove their belongings at the end of each day will allow for more effective cleanings that can’t happen when desks are covered with clutter, says Sabet.
An alternative to that approach is to keep the dedicated work station but implement a “clean desk policy”: Each employee gets a cubby or locker in which to store things at the end of each workday, and desk surfaces are cleaned each night.
“The employee is the only one in that space,” says Shelton. “There won’t be this introduction of another person sitting in that chair or touching those surfaces.”
Adding more separation between workstations–something being done out of necessity in the short term–might become a long-term trend meant to give employees more privacy.
A more extreme measure: Rapt Studio co-founder David Galullo says the firm is working with a client to design enclosed pods to replace traditional workspaces. The structures will have four walls, some made of glass and some opaque.
The remote-friendly workplace
Many companies are considering alternating work schedules when they return to the office to help enforce social distancing. That fact, combined with the realization that employees can be just as effective while working from home, might make remote work much more common in the long term, says Galullo.
“For the longest time we’ve been talking about choice in the office: You can sit in a lounge space or small huddle room or the outdoor patio, depending on what allows you to do your best work,” Galullo says. “I think in the future, we add the home workplace to that list.” That might mean employees come into the office on days when they have collaborative work and stay home on days when they’ll mostly be operating on their own.
Making that transition might require some technological changes. Companies are likely to move their systems to a centralized location or the cloud so that work can be seamlessly picked right up from home, says Sabet. It’s an undertaking that for many companies has been sped up given the current crisis.
Of course, working from home is possible to varying degrees given each employee’s home setup. As such, some companies are granting employees technology stipends. Twitter recently announced that all employees–in addition to being able to work from home indefinitely–will receive credits of up to $1,000 to upgrade their work-from-home setups.
Heartwell points out that laptops meant for gaming can serve as affordable solutions for employees in roles, like engineering or architecture, that use programs requiring high processing power.
“Something a lot of companies have discovered is that where things break down is in the technology capabilities of the person in their own home,” says Heartwell. “So the very first step is making sure everyone has transportable technology.”