3 thoughts on Covid-19 and its impact on workplace design

A lot has been said over the last weeks about the impact of Covid-19 on the design of our workspaces and for good reason...

 min. read
February 15, 2021

A lot has been said over the last weeks about the impact of Covid-19 on the design of our workspaces and for good reason.

Less has been said however, about the design of our civic buildings, schools, places of worship, plazas, sidewalks, shops, gyms, restaurants and of course, public transportation systems even though social distancing has as large an effect on them. Our office spaces aren't islands cut off from the complexity of the modern city. They are instead one stop among many in the every day lives of people who inhabit those cities.

Every one of those spaces and their connecting tissue have been impacted by the requirements for social distancing. For designers, the reason for this is clear. The world is designed around the average human's scale. Codified in things like building codes, zoning codes, ergonomic standards and industry best practices, the scale of the human being is central to the design of everything around us. A requirement for people to keep a larger-than-normal distance between them forces a core change to the 'design specification' of the world around us. As you would expect, a lot of things 'break' when you do this.

Here's one incredible example out of the UK:

We wanted to take the time to put together some notes that we find relevant today as well as some useful links. None of these yet form the basis for a comprehensive new workplace typology, but we do believe it begins to set a useful vector that we can test against. We do see many of the best practices designers use for cities, public spaces, commercial and residential real estate to change, but we only see the distancing requirements as a short term solution. Here are 3 overall topics that we are focused on this week:

1. Pre-vaccine and post-vaccine needs will be different

The return to the office is mired with uncertainty. The plan for businesses to get people back into their offices should be split into two categories: the 'pre' and the 'post' vaccine worlds.

Pre-Vaccine

This plan is driven by the time period between each communities' lifting of their 'stay at home' orders and whenever a proven vaccine has been produced and deployed at scale. It is difficult to know how long this will take but according to different organizations including the WHO it could be as short as 6 months and as long as 24 months. During this time, we expect most of the changes to the workplace to be operational in nature. Some changes will effect furniture and space use as well. We predict this relationship to flip in the 'Post-Vaccine' plan.

  • Businesses, operators and landlords may need to be ready to tackle some tricky data privacy issues in case of an outbreak being tracked back to a particular location. Data privacy and tenant privacy will be tested.
  • Businesses, operators and landlords may need to set up temporary health facilities in their buildings for on-demand testing, data gathering and more
  • Expect thermal imaging technology to become commonplace in class A office lobbies, elevators and entrances. This may be done with cameras or with hand-held devices, meaning for many the experience will be to wait in line waiting to be scanned before allowing access
  • Expect a significant change to food services served 'in office'
  • Expect a significant change to food deliveries to lobbies in office buildings
  • Expect completely revamped cleaning plans and as a result increased common charges or rent
  • Expect 'use' changes to spaces within the workspace such as conference rooms being turned into private offices
  • Expect businesses to develop and formally deploy work-from-home policies with significant incentives for people to NOT come into the office
  • Expect end-of-trip shower and locker room facilities to be temporarily closed or repurposed
  • Expect a focus on HVAC management. Here's a good post on this from a friend in the UK

NOTE: the World Health Organization (WHO) has published a handy 'Getting your workplace ready for COVID-19' guide you can find here

Post-Vaccine

  • The core reasoning for having an office will shift away from 'factories of knowledge workers' to 'spaces for collaborative work'
  • For those businesses that still have physical spaces, offices will become physical manifestations of their brand and cultures and the means to get people together for special occasions, training, etc but not focused work
  • Health stations will become a staple in buildings of a certain size
  • Workplace design will take a page from healthcare design in terms of material specifications and certifications
  • Tenant experience services will be more important than ever as we shift from 'nice to have' to 'must have'
  • Expect businesses to subsidize home office expenses like internet, computers, furniture and even portions of the rent
  • Expect air filtration standards to be upgraded at scale, potentially making their way into updated construction codes

2. Adaptability is the new flexibility

For years now we've seen the trend toward flexible lease terms grow more and more. We see this trend being accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. So much so, that we expect this to spread to the actual design of spaces popularizing cost effective and rapidly deployable 'construction-free' solutions at scale. Gone are the days where businesses will spend millions of dollars 'hard coding' a design solution that may very well become useless at any time. Adaptability then becomes a new trend, stacked on flexible lease terms that will allow for businesses to get exactly what they want, for only as long as they want it.

  • Expect lease terms to continue to decrease in length
  • Expect tenant improvement allowances to decrease in tandem with lease terms
  • Expect budgets for retrofitting to decrease in tandem with tenant improvement allowances
  • Expect rapidly deployable systems like prefabricated rooms, office, team homes and conference rooms to become much more prevalent
  • Expect demountable partitions, power and data fences and raised flooring to become more prevalent
  • Expect landlord scope in the US to move a bit closer to what in the UK is referred to as CAT-A
  • Expect FF&E to take a much bigger role in office fit-outs
  • Expect constructed solutions to be avoided whenever possible or directed by code
  • Expect a lot of HVAC, electrical, sprinkler and fire solutions to pop up that support adaptability

3. Work from home (WFH) may be a permanent new perk

Companies that have supported remote working have for years been subsidizing their remote employees' expenses at home in exchange for the savings they get for not having a physical office. 10 years ago, at my previous company CASE we had a monthly allowance for remote employees (about 40% of our workforce then) that would cover things like memberships at a co-working space, furniture for their home office, computer equipment or even increased internet speed costs. Admittedly, this was a fringe perk for a small consulting company in the technology and architecture sector. We are seeing this trend scale across many more traditional industries like banking, trading, law and others.

Here's a collection of thoughts on this topic as it continues to develop:

  • The 'workplace stack' of a business will now need to be carefully considered. For a long time, the split was between companies that were 100% on premises and 100% traveling (traveling salespeople for example), with a very small cohort falling somewhere in between
  • The '6 foot office' as is being touted may reduce some office densities by as much as 50% and it is unlikely that businesses will react by simply renting more of it
  • We expect the '6 foot office' to be a 'pre vaccine' solution that will slowly revert to the international standard of 100 sq.ft. per person as a guiding principle
  • A 80/20 physical to WFH stack may well become a much more common combination for companies. This means they 'design' for 80% of their staff to be on premises at any given time, as opposed to designing to 'peak loads' as it is done today.

Have any thoughts or comments to add? Reach out to us.