With the rollout of the first COVID-19 vaccine programs underway, many of us are looking into the not-so-distant future, when it becomes safe to return to the office. But with more people than ever working remotely, what role will the physical workplace still play?
In the Q&A below, ZGF interior design partner James Woolum shares his vision for the post-COVID workplace, and describes the potential shift from the workplace-as-homebase model, to that of workplace-as-hospitality-hub.
Now that many office workers have adjusted to working from home, will work environments need to be that much more inviting?
Before we set about enticing workers to come back to the office, I think employers will need to continue to cultivate trust around the topics of office wellness, health, and infection control. While it’s tempting to assume that everything will simply revert back to normal someday, the return to the office—for companies that even go that route—will involve a big psychological re-alignment, just as the work from home shift did. I think in the short term, we’ll see a more gradual return, and to make work environments most inviting, we need to help people feel safe and secure.
In hearing from my colleagues and clients, I get that sense that the biggest luxuries of working from home have been the elimination of a daily commute, the freedom to take a mid-day walk or to exercise, spending more time with children or spouses, running the occasional errand, or maybe having a more flexible work schedule overall. (Side note: flexibility is not a luxury that’s been evenly distributed during this period of work from home. Many people actually feel more confined at home than in the office. Zoom fatigue is a real thing and, I think, contributes to one of the many unforeseen effects of the pandemic. Who knew we’d be burned out on work when we’ve barely left our own homes?!)
We’re probably reaching a tipping point. Once people make the personal choice to return to work, employers may need to find new ways to provide the positive aspects of working from home, whether through physical amenities like gyms, smaller corporate campuses distributed across a particular region to reduce commute times, and more flexible and family-friendly policies.
For physical workplaces, I think we’ll see a meaningful shift from workplace-as-homebase—the place you go five days a week because that’s what’s required—to workplace-as-hospitality-hub, a set of places or work settings you seek out to have meaningful and curated experiences with colleagues or clients.
Will the office of the future need to permanently maintain some of the safeguards that have been so heavily discussed?
My best guess is that the plexiglass and partitions will not stick around. But this gets at another important question: how do employers make employees feel safe and comfortable without detracting from their spaces?
We can look to healthcare design for some guidance. Finishes and furniture should both look cleanable and actually be cleanable. Materials, finishes, and design elements will need to be selected for infection prevention, frequent daily cleaning, and regular heavy-duty cleaning (i.e. bleach-cleanable surfaces). This is a new approach for workplace. I think this will be the new norm, but designers have been effortlessly and beautifully making cleanliness a priority in health and wellness spaces for years.
On the subject of cleanliness, I think we’ll see the normalization of hand-washing in office reception areas (and in restaurants). Confession time: as a borderline compulsive hand washer for many years, I was proudly ahead of the curve. But let’s say you arrive at an office tomorrow and you’re greeted by a receptionist. They might say, ‘Would you mind stepping here and washing your hands?’ This is another idea borrowed from healthcare, where before you enter a nursing unit you are expected to wash your hands. The unit clerk typically has direct line of sight to observe if you’re washing your hands. That part is important, because the further from reception a person travels, the more likely they will interact with a surface or a person before they wash up.
Another trend is touchless tech. Older offices tend to have more doors. A couple of generations ago, everything was in a room and everything was behind a door. When approaching TI work in older buildings, we’re starting to look more at solutions where you don’t have to touch the handle to get from one space to another.
Modern workplace design considers how friction points can be reduced from an occupant satisfaction standpoint. This could also help with safety and infection prevention. For companies with new spaces and a lot of security concerns, we continue to focus on reducing the amount of times they need to swipe their badges. The more times you have to scan a badge to move through a door, you get frustrated. In an older facility, we might be applying that same logic but it’s less about user satisfaction and more about reducing friction points for better cleanliness and social distancing.
ZGF, Los Angeles Office
If employers offer workers more flexible schedules, such as 3-day work-in-the-office weeks, how will that impact the way space is allotted?
Even before the pandemic, workplace design, especially for our technology clients, trended toward lots of open space, fewer assigned offices, and greater density of seating. We allocated more space to conference rooms and other collaboration areas where people can convene more informally. Our professional services clients wanted more offices and maybe fewer common areas, but even those spaces were strategically placed and linked to the vertical circulation, encouraging people to come together for those so-called creative collisions.
What we’re seeing now is an acceleration of these trends and the emergence of what I mentioned earlier, the notion of the workplace-as-hospitality-hub. At its most basic, it’s a rethink of what people will come to the office for: not so much where they park themselves for 40-plus hours each week at an assigned desk, but more likely the setting for unassigned seating and touchdown work, meetings, collaboration, etc. for 2-3 days a week.
If they are not already, many of our clients will soon be grappling with the post-vaccine question of who will want to come back into the office, who has to be in the office, and whether some/all/none of their employees can continue to do their work effectively from home full time. Just like everything else during the pandemic, those answers are likely to evolve. That puts clients who are in the middle of active projects, or who are launching new ones, in a tough position.
In some ways, we’re approaching this problem by pushing for greater flexibility, something most designers and clients have already been pushing for and raving about in recent years. This means designing modular spaces (partitions, furniture) that can be adapted for multiple future uses. It might mean creating a ceiling grid for lighting and power distribution that is completely agnostic of what’s happening below. In recent weeks, we’ve worked with clients on numerous plans and illustrative renderings to show how spaces can toggle between different layouts, densities, and uses depending on what the users’ needs may be. Given the uncertainties that every organization faces, this seems like the prudent approach.
The Lundquist Institute, Medical Research Building 1
Pre-COVID, I shared a pretty consistent metric with our clients: at any given time, 20 percent of your workforce is likely to be out of the office (could be sick kids, vacations, business trips, etc.). That number is likely to drastically increase in the short term as we see a gradual return to office. Eventually we may settle back into that 20 percent range, but I think it’s possible that that baseline metric stays much higher as people look to balance their return to the office with the positive aspects of working from home.
Of course, it’s reasonable to assume that companies like the idea of a remote workforce because it can winnow down spending on leases, and hard and soft costs. But many clients are wondering about what the long-term cost will be to the culture of the company? Will culture be as important as it used to be, or does culture begin to shift and look differently? Does the physical workplace become even more emblematic of a company’s brand? And what responsibility does the physical space now play in maintaining company culture when a larger cross-section of employees work virtually? These are issues that we’ll see play out over the next 12-24 months.
What about the role of green spaces that allow workers to breathe fresh air and connect to nature in the future offices?
This will continue to be important. Pre-pandemic, biophilia and connections to nature were already of keen interest to many of our clients. We also know that nature, access to daylight, and natural materials like wood can reduce stress, increase feelings of calm, and support overall health and wellbeing.
Will workers express more interest in efficient and safe HVAC systems post-pandemic?
Absolutely. In addition to cultivating trust, one thing that will be very important is the attention to mechanical systems. There will be more filters and more outside air and more isolated ducts and returns so that there is less cross contamination of spaces. In future spaces, you will see an even greater focus on operable windows and natural ventilation.
Another key difference post-vaccine is the lunch hour. Companies whose employees congregate around a single café area within a campus may instead opt to open smaller eateries throughout campus, or move to app-based delivery of food.