Despite what you may have heard, COVID-19 is not the end of the open office. Will we have to make accommodations for physical distancing as we go back to work? Absolutely, but this can be done without giving up on the social and collaborative advantages we all value in the open office, and without spending thousands of dollars to retrofit workspaces. Transformation in our behaviors and habits will be far more important than putting up new walls over the next few months.
Like many of you, collaboration is at the core of my business as a workplace designer at Hendrick. My colleagues and I thrive on the face-to-face exchange of ideas, and while we have continued to serve our clients well from our homes, we are anxious to get back to the office. The next few months, and perhaps longer, will be a challenge, but small changes can have a big impact in keeping all of us safe while reestablishing workplace connections and transforming our behaviors and habits.
We recommend that you start by engaging your employees to understand what “going back to the workplace” feels like for them. We have developed a brief employee engagement survey to gather and understand the employee’s concerns and point of view. The information gathered in the survey has helped provide our organization and our clients’ organizations information to determine “when”, “why”, “who” and “how” you make the transition back to the workplace. Your people are important to the success of your organization, and this small step will provide a great deal of value.
Once you have established the goal of easing back into the workplace and who should be in the office, we also recommend that companies gradually bring people back, whether in smaller groups over a period of time or in multiple shifts. In order to further inform your approach, consider the entire journey of the employees back to the office. What is their transportation method to the office? What is their experience getting up to the floor? Working with the property management team to understand the building procedures and protocols will help you determine how many people can get up to your floor via elevator or stairs in a reasonable time frame. In addition, a gradual approach will allow an adjustment period where you are able to simulate the workplace experience before you actually go back to the office. This period is an effective way to test and adapt to what works for your organization.
In a recent study by Hendrick and our partners at ONE Global Design, a global network of 20 design firms, we found that over 50 percent of employees said they can do without an assigned desk if they had the flexibility to work from home. Considering a permanent work from home strategy opens up a lot of possibilities for flexibility of your strategy both in the short and long terms. Flexibility is now the operative word.
If you have a need to accommodate more people that proper distancing accommodates, consider ways to use employee specific desks to accommodate work space. You may have to give up some perceived luxuries in the short term, such as an oversized lobby or second or third conference rooms, or the space filled by the ping-pong table, all of which can be temporarily occupied by desks. Inexpensive dividers between desks are another solution, but a second choice and one that will require an investment.
Look at traffic patterns
The greatest protections, inside and outside the office, will be in transforming our behaviors and habits. Start with traffic patterns. Each door should effectively provide a passage in only one direction, either entering or exiting, so that people do not pass each other unnecessarily. Aisles can be one way. Small breakrooms should have a limit on people and large ones should spread out the tables.
Do people tend to funnel through certain areas? Are there alternative, maybe slightly longer, paths that people don’t use? Think like WAZE and reduce random interactions between people by altering these patterns. Signage will be a big part of your strategy, denoting one-way aisles, limits on how many can enter an elevator or breakroom or conference room, as well as reminders about simple but important things like handwashing. All of these will take time to learn and become a habit to an individual’s day so provide opportunities for people to learn with smaller groups around.
Meetings are one of the bigger challenges because that’s one of the reasons we want to return to the office. The typical conference room will not allow for much physical distancing and you will have to look for other space. Think creatively: reception areas and wide hallways, and if you are part of a corporate campus, this is the perfect time of the year to take a meeting outside.
Reinvent and don’t retreat
Design innovation almost always follows cultural change. The unique needs of the tech industry in Silicon Valley have driven much of what we have seen in office design over the past decade, and many of those changes have been adopted by other businesses. The present crisis is allowing us to reevaluate how we work, where we work and how to maintain connectivity. We will encounter rough spots as we address these challenges, but use this as an opportunity not just to get through the next few months, but to make the changes that will make your workplace more creative and productive in the years to come.
Stephen Wells is a Principal at Hendrick Inc. in Atlanta. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (404) 261-9383.