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Back to Work: Returning to the Workplace in a Post-Pandemic World

Posted on May 26, 2021 by Ceco Building Systems

There is no denying 2020 upended our lives. The global COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we think about work, school, travel, social interactions, dining – everything. But it is not all negative. In the same way that an urban snowstorm helps city planners by showing the actual path of traffic and pedestrians along streets and sidewalks, our response to COVID-19 illustrated how the workplace could change – for good. 

 

Cobwebs in the Conference Room 

The office real estate sector was hit hard in 2020. Whether it was a layoff, furlough, reduced salary, slashed hours, or just moving your office into your living room, everyone felt it. Across the world, former bustling corporate hubs sat eerily silent and empty. And they mostly stayed that way. With more than a million lost jobs, 104 million square feet in negative absorption and demand down a staggering 66% year over year at the end of 2020, the office world faces a stark choice: “evolve or die.” 

 

Pandemic or not, workplace changes were already overdue. Many workplaces are relics of the past, with employers simply doing what has always been done. We each have our own office because we always have. But according to a white paper posted by SmithGroup, only about half of individual workspaces are occupied at any given time. That is grievously inefficient underutilization. Steelcase VP of workplace innovation Gale Moutrey summed it up in an interview with Building Design + Construction. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much interest in reinventing the workplace,” he said. 

 

As infection rates have dropped with the rollout of vaccines, many employers are looking to bring the workforce back into the office. But the post-pandemic workplace is going to look different.  

 

Mixed Reviews 

For a time, it seemed like working from home might be the new future. Some workers had mastered it years before the pandemic. Others longed to take their work home with them, and though many employers resisted the idea for a variety of valid reasons, the pandemic forced their hand. Through patience, perseverance and a lot of tech savvy, many made it work. But it does not look to be a long-term solution. 

 

The End of Homework 

A poll conducted by Gensler found that only 19% of employees wanted to work from home full-time. Full-time remote work complicates a variety of important workplace functions. A considerable percentage of nonverbal communication is lost over the phone or Zoom, making spontaneous collaboration, ideation and thorough communication a challengeIt is hard to find that spark when you are only connected by pixels. For many, the home “workplace” environment is also riddled with distractions, whether they be spouses, children, pets, chores or the tempting siren song of Netflix and video games.  

 

On the other hand, more than half of surveyed employees preferred working from home at least some of the time. But to further complicate the matter, a late 2020 Honeywell survey of 500 U.S. employees found that the vast majority did not feel safe working in offices with 500+ people. 

 

So, here is what we know: Employees want to work from home – sometimes. They also want to work at the office – sometimes. But they are also uneasy about a return to the office. So … What is the answer? 

 

Flexibility 

The workplace of the future will be built on a “work from anywhere” mentality. Some days, half the office might be working remotely. Floating desks or “hot desks” are an elegant response to this. They are used by those in the office each day, then by someone else the next day, instead of everyone having their own dedicated space. Other days, workers may want to gather in a collaboration suite to brainstorm. This means the day-to-day or month-to-month layout is likely to shift continually.  

 

We were already underutilizing office space, so instead of rigid walls, set-in-stone offices and conference rooms, we should design for maximal flexibility. Adaptable, lightweight, modular furniture. Moveable dividers and screening options. These will make it possible to create different workspace arrangements, as needed, in the same space. 

 

As Steelcase’s Moutrey predicts, “Workspaces are becoming multipurpose and multi-modal. Is it a café, is it a team meeting space, is it a social space? Yes—it’s all of those things.” 

 

But work will need to not only make efficient, smart use of space. It will need to be safe and feel safe. A couple of years ago, a masked person walking into your workplace would have made your heart jump. Nowadays, the opposite is more the case. Studies show employees are both anxious to return to work and anxious about the risks of returning to work. Through careful planning, clear communication and safety protocols, employees will be able to focus on their output instead of worrying about getting sick. 

 

Be PPE Prepared 

Make sure you have the basics covered. We’ve all come to expect easy and omnipresent access to hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and masks. Disposable and recyclable placemats for communal workstations or “hot desks” are another smart option, making sanitization between employees simpler. Simple signage reminding employees and guests alike to mask up, wash their hands and stay six feet apart are essential.  

 

Consider all the office supplies people share – laptops, desk phones, whiteboard markers, art equipment. It may be worth supplying everyone with their own to cut down on this easily forgettable transmission vector. 

 

High Touch to High Tech 

Another new option worth exploring is continually self-cleaning surfaces like nanoSeptic. Installing these on high traffic touchpoints like doorknobs, door handles, light controls and elevator buttons reduces transmission risk and helps everyone feel a little safer. An even better – though more costly – option is to replace high touch with touch-free options like motion sensors for lights, bathroom fixtures and doors. 

 

Remote Control 

The tech world has innovated other solutions worth exploring as well. First, ensure your AV game is adequate. Having a workforce which is often split between in-office and remote means that secure, fast, reliable and seamless connection between the teams via streaming platforms and videoconferencing is crucial.  

 

Apps can also enable the complex dance of staggering work shifts, arrival times and more. New services make it possible to assign and reserve desks, manage service requests, reserve collaboration space and a variety of other helpful functions. 

 

From A Distance 

As we have learned over the last year, the watchword is “six feet.” So, tomorrow’s workspace revolves around creating spaces that can always ensure that six-foot distance between people. As we adjust to an ever-evolving new normal, it is simply basic caution. But in some areas, it also may be government mandated.  

 

Ensuring the six-foot rule means de-densifying your space – by as much as 50%. Workstations should prioritize physical distancing. This can be accomplished in several ways. Re-orienting workspaces can reduce face-to-face situations. Physically staggering workspaces (along with staggering shift times) can buy those extra couple of feet needed for a six-foot desk. If that fails, transparent plastic or glass screen panels can allow for safe seating in closer proximity. Creating smaller meeting spaces – but more of them – is another workable solution. 

 

Spread Out 

Another pandemic-spurred trend we see is movement away from massive corporate campuses or organizations housed in a single, large skyscraper, and towards smaller, dispersed hubs throughout a metro area. Fewer people in the office and interacting cut down transmission risk. 

 

This does not all have to be a matter of guesswork. Software programs such as IBM’s TRIRIGA help with dynamic space planning by looking at current density heat mapping, which can be instrumental in identifying new layouts and traffic flows. For instance, small corridors might present unforeseen distancing challenges – but making them one-way is a simple solution.  

 

Open and Close 

The pandemic decided many things for us, but the open office vs. closed floorplan debate lingers on. The collaboration and productivity promise of open floor plans were never borne out in reality. However, in a world where virus transmission is more of a concern, open floorplans are easier to clean and offer better ventilation. On the other hand, closed offices remove the need for distancing, but also present many more surfaces to clean – with poorer ventilation. 

 

Overall, the trend is still toward open floorplans due to their cost-effectiveness and aesthetics, but there are many ways to improve the typical “cubicle farm.” Schrimmer Design Group and Lebel & Bouliane say, “Incorporating plants and green walls into all our spaces allows for connection to the natural world … [and] they practically deal with cleaning and filtering the air.” Careful treatment of acoustic properties can also make open floorplans feel less disruptive and chaotic. 

 

Though the six-foot desk, one-way corridors and other viral transmission safety measures can feel restrictive, keep in mind that the solutions you develop can be a strong illustration of company’s creative problem-solving finesse. 

 

Working Al Fresco 

Of all the pandemic response trends we have seen since early 2020, the easiest to get on board with is simple: moving outside. Risk of virus transmission is 20 times higher inside than outside. We have seen restaurants across the country expand their patios and take over parking lot space for outdoor seating. Many workplaces are doing the same thing, converting balconies, courtyards and even rooftops into flexible outdoor workspaces. Of course, this is not possible in all places, all year long, but it is a great solution when it is viable. Typically, all that is necessary to make outdoor space work friendly is the addition of seating, running extra power, extending wi-fi range and getting a portable white board or two. 

 

Breathe Easier 

When taking it outside is not an option, updating and upgrading indoor ventilation is the next best thing – and is a solid investment overall. According to the New York Times, “Masks and social distancing are essential, but good airflow is also key to reducing the risk of exposure.” ABM says, “A healthy building is a well ventilated one.”  

 

Simply opening windows (if possible) can let ample fresh, clean air in and reduce the risk of viral transmission. Air purifiers are another option for smaller spaces. ABM is also investigating emerging technologies still in the testing phases, such as needlepoint bipolar ionization, HVAC dry hydrogen peroxide generation and probiotic air-injection systems. More outside air coming in, better filtration, UV lighting and continuously measuring contaminants, particles and CO2in the air all make for better ventilation and a safer, healthier workplace. 

 

Prove It 

All these changes can be a lot to take in – and a lot to manage. As we have learned since the beginning of the pandemic, there is not one simple solution that solves it all. But the more boxes you check, the safer you are. 

 

Your Ceco representative is happy to assist in identifying products that can make this transition smoother, such as easy-to-clean insulated metal panels or windows and doors that can improve your building’s ventilation. We are eager to work with you towards designing new construction custom-suited to this new normal – or renovating and reskinning an existing building to make the most of every six feet. Get in touch to get started today.