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Reimagining the Workplace ~ Part 1

These last months since the onset of COVID-19 have been unimaginable. We have transitioned from normalcy plus the knowledge that something was happening, to a life of stay-at-home/shelter-in-place, social distancing, and face masks. Everyone, no exceptions, has had their world turned upside down in some way by this pandemic. As we reimagine the workplace experience, we now must look at some practical physical applications for our companies.

Many drycleaning operations and other essential businesses have had to put some quick-fix changes in place since the onset of this pandemic. Examples include:

· Tape and/or stickers on the ground to denote a 6-foot distance from other customers.

· Institute curbside drop-off and pick-up.

· Install plexiglass dividers at counters/employee workstations ensuring safety for all.

· Move credit card machines to create distance protection.

· Having hand-sanitizers and anti-bacterial wipes easily accessible to customers and staff.

Once upon a time we all sat in cubicle offices. They were considered the forefront of modern office design. These cubicles have long since been replaced by the open office concept. The tech/start-up industry has made these large, open floor plans extremely popular. Added were “fishbowl” conference rooms, private phone areas, and sleeping rooms, placed in accessible locations. This open-office concept was the “in thing” in architectural design. Now we are finding during this pandemic that open spaces do not conform to our new reality of social (physical) distancing. Many refer to this layout as a “communal petri dish”.

Open-plan offices will need to change to enable us to go back to work, but how drastically? Mark Wilson, Senior Writer @ Fast Company, interviewed Todd Heiser, Managing Director @ Gensler Architecture, and Primo Orpilla, Co-founder @ Studio O+A Interior Design. They discuss the changes they foresee in business brick-and-mortar workplaces. Orpilla states, “Anytime you look at a well-designed open plan only about 30% of people are sitting at their desks. The rest are using other parts of the office space, thereby exercising social distancing on demand in their own way. Gensler Architecture has been developing a tool for clients, which takes existing floor plans and algorithmically suggests safer seating layouts. That might sound excessive - using AI just to spread people a minimum distance apart, but several of their clients are working with over a million feet of office space. Some automation will be necessary.” Heiser adds “That being said, the target has been painted. Over the last five years, there has been a push for the open-plan model to densify. That is where you are seeing the problems. Some places were designed without the additional open areas, meeting spaces, or the right ratio of meeting spaces to headcount. They were not well thought-out. In the beginning maybe 20% of people will go back to work. Perhaps late summer next year we could see those densities grow.”

Wilson states, “If you have visited an open office in the past few years you have probably been greeted by someone sitting at a desk who points you to the coffee maker and snacks, you help yourself and then take a seat. This set-up is to make visitors feel comfortable without a lot of staff oversight. Comfort going forward will be about perceived safety. Self-serve coffee may not come back as designers reimagine the need to decontaminate visitors before entering a shared space. Many offices have such spaces that are full of lockers, bike storage, and even showers. These have been located at side doors and rear entrances. Now, these spaces might face everyone who visits an office. There might even be a place to run health screenings for anyone who comes into the building.” Heiser says, “We have been thinking, what is the new paradigm? Maybe it is a “mud” room: you come in, change your shoes, and wash your hands. Will sinks become primary in entries instead of self-service coffee? We have been thinking of this redefined office as an ‘officle’, not quite an office, not quite a cubicle. Such a room would only have three walls, with the fourth side open to allow airflow. It provides privacy and focus to work minus a door.” Orpilla adds, “If we let people into the building, they might infect people. We have to have better checkpoints to screen employees and visitors. We are going to have to take your temperature before entering the place of business. Expect to see plexiglass and other dividers installed that create walls around desks. One of my clients said the other day, ‘I should not have gotten rid of all those 65-inch-tall panels.’ Whether it is truly safe or not, people feel safer with a barrier around them.”

It is essential today that we guarantee proper air circulation in our office spaces. We now know that the virus can be spread through recycled air. It is important to have fresh air-flow and have proper air filtration in places of business. Wilson reports, “Orpilla is experimenting with installing giant exhaust fans like those you see over grills at restaurants and places where small groups of people needing fresh air might meet. Yet ironically, while cubicles are coming back to protect individual employees inside, shared spaces like small and medium private conference rooms may actually need to be opened up to the rest of the office, to let these rooms breathe. Mass gatherings are canceled across much of the world, which means no big weddings—and even, maybe no work lunch. Properly proportioned open offices are often built with cafeterias designed to operate at a high capacity, to feed most or all employees within a very tight window of time. Expect a lot of desk lunches and outdoor eating instead. If employees do not gather in the cafeteria for lunch, what becomes of that space? The answer is pretty simple: it opens up to accommodate more workers through the day, allowing everyone to distance more.”

Directing people in our businesses through hallways, stairs, and elevators is even more challenging as we strive to maintain six-foot distancing. The Ikea Company model in which everyone moves uni-directionally could be instituted using arrows on the ground throughout hallways and on newly created pathways around the office. One-person elevators could be installed and larger elevators could be fitted with plexiglass dividers. Voice-activated systems could tell the elevator what floor instead of pressing a button. Stairways would be based on individual circumstance.

Some companies are laying color-coded carpets to facilitate the flow of traffic in the office. A creative solution by one company was to install a 12-foot-diameter circular carpet in one color with the desk in the middle. The main carpet area around the circle in a different color making the 6-foot social-distancing marker clearer for everyone and at the same time seemingly an integral part of the decor. Flow of traffic was color-coded throughout the office in the carpet. Automatic doors will be installed to avoid having to touch the door handles. More stringent cleaning policies will be instituted in the office space.

As we learn more about this virus and how it spreads, and until a vaccine has been developed, we have to be open to modifying our office designs and procedures. As more information is released in the coming months and, sadly years, we will have to make many adjustments as many return to the workplace and learn to work together while remaining at least six feet apart.


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