By Jean-Paul Wong

As you read this, you’re probably sitting at your dining room table, your living room sofa or some makeshift office in your home.  It may not be designed to be as efficient as your office’s workspace, and it may lack good ergonomics, but it is comfortable and safe and you have learned to adapt to your environment to be productive.   

Since forever in time, office spaces existed so that employers could create “work-focused” environments, where productivity could be managed, where workers could communicate more effectively, and where collaboration and comradery are encouraged.   In recent years, however, as mobile technologies advanced, more progressive companies embraced the idea of teleworking as a significant way to save in real estate costs and as a way to attract a more mobile and diverse workforce.  Yet, for some industries, and for some businesses, the idea of a full-time remote workforce is still years away. In 2018, less than 25% of the U.S. workforce worked some hours from home on an average day.   

The COVID-19 pandemic, and stay-at-home mandates, thrust all of us into the workplace of the future.  Everyone quickly learned how to create a work-focused enclave in their home.  We learned how to adjust our behaviors and our expectations. And by now we all realize that we can perform our work using a myriad of remote devices.  And technology, not proximity, allows us to communicate, as well as collaborate.  

Unfortunately, the future is not here, and many of us will be going back to the office within the next few weeks.  If COVID-19 is still transmittable, how can workers be expected to go back to the office?  What will our employers do to our office environment to reduce the spread of pathogens?  How can we make sure that our co-workers remain respectful of our personal space and continue to social distance? Will it be the same? 

As employers prepare for the end of the quarantine and the work-from-home experiment comes to an end, our fears are providing good fodder for designers, workplace consultants and office furniture manufacturers.   In the not-to-distant future, workplace design may be reflective of the lessons learned during the pandemic of 2020.  

There is no reason to delay.  In the short-term, employers can make some immediate changes, making the workplace appreciably safer, with little associated cost.   

  • Employers will need to strengthen the distinction between private and shared space. Over the last decade, these lines have blurred and employees will begin to demand more privacy in order to feel safe while doing their work.    Employers can make available more private/restricted areas where employees can go to feel safe, protected, and in control of their environment.  In the open plan work areas, employers can increase the distance between workers by spreading them further apart or by flipping the orientation of their desks. . Shared “hot-desking” should become a thing of the past.  It will be essential in some cases to add cleanable/wipeable privacy screens to help reduce the transmission of pathogens via droplets or aerosolized particles. 
  • With the shrinking of personal workspaces over the years, offices have incorporated collaboration spaces for thought-sharing, idea generation and social interaction.   These will continue to be critical to maintain the moral and productivity of employees working in already cramped personal spaces.  But how will these look post-COVID-19? The size of collaboration spaces may shrink to limit the number of people using them.  Some collaboration spaces may even have restricted uses to control the number of people who have access.  Furniture may be spread further apart and be designed with antimicrobial fabrics and finishes for easy cleanability.  Cleaning supplies could be readily available for users to clean potentially contaminated surfaces.  Improved air filtration systems can be installed to help eliminate the spread of airborne pathogens. 
  • Employers should consider placing sanitizer dispensing stations throughout the office, especially in social or shared spaces and near breakrooms and bathrooms.  Over the past month we’ve become accustomed to having antibacterial sanitizers within arm’s reach, at the grocery store, in our automobiles, our purses or bags and around our home.  We are already beginning to change our behavior.  Company-provided sanitizer stations are an effective and inexpensive way to encourage better hygiene.  
  • Businesses should adopt or modify workplace policies regarding better hygiene, workspace cleanliness, and safe-distancing.  Stricter guidelines should be implemented forbidding an employee to come into the office if they, or someone in their family, is a carrier of a potentially contagious virus.  Adopting teleworking protocols after COVID-19 should be an easy first step in increasing employer’s openness to allowing remote work while an employee is convalescing or caring for others.   
  • Environmental branding companies and flooring manufacturers are quickly innovating products that can be integrated into the interior design of a workspace that will provide visual cues, reminding people of safe social distancing, encouraging hand-washing, and that route people through an office in a way that mitigates the risk of transmission of viruses. These product will help keep our workplace essentially the same, but they will be a constant reminder to everyone how expectations have changed the way we work. 

Many of these products are available for immediate application and the ideas are simple to implement. Employees returning to the office will want to find that their workplace is safe, but that the “new-normal” is still a place where work gets done, is fun and where co-workers can engage and share ideas.  The key to the efficacy of any solution will be in how we change our behaviors and tendencies.