Post-pandemic workplaces could look much different
‘Hoteling,’ other office trends to become commonplace, designers, observers sayJune 4th, 2020
Pre-pandemic office design could be going the way of the fax machine and rotary phone.
As employees return to their offices from being furloughed or working remotely due to COVID-19, they’re likely to encounter health screening stations, reconfigured workspaces, and ubiquitous signs serving as reminders to stay physically distant from each other.
Some employers and supervisors here say many such measures are here to stay as part of a new reality resulting from the pandemic.
Angie Cashen, principal and project manager at Spokane-based interior design firm Design Source, says creating a plan for an office has to start with communicating with employees.
Cashen suggests surveying employees. She did just that with her seven employees weeks ago.
“I got a good feel for what everyone wanted to do and came up with a plan with policies and procedures, so everyone feels safe when they do go to the office,” Cashen says. “You want to find out when they want to come back, how they want to come back, what’s working for them, what’s not working, how you can improve technology.”
Fernando Jauretche, owner of Contract Resource Group Inc., which does business as Free Form Interiors, located at 715 E. Sprague, says that once employers understand how employees feel, it’s time to consider whether to implement some measures temporarily or permanently.
“If it’s a short-term solution, we’re talking about Plexiglass screens like you’ve seen in stores, but a little more finished and more intentionally designed dividers that are going into workstations and reception stations,” Jauretche says. “In lobbies and other seating spaces, we’re seeing a lot of moveable dividers being ordered and arranged.”
Many offices also have established check-in stations, he says.
“In fact, we have one here in our office,” Jauretche says. “You come in. You fill out the health questionnaire. You take your own temperature with the infrared thermometer, and then there’s hand sanitizer so you can sanitize your hands afterward.”
Other offices are using technology to conduct more rigorous employee health screenings. Jauretche says one Free Form client, insurance company Cochrane & Co., is investing in an infrared camera system that will screen employees automatically for high temperatures as they enter and exit the building and bar them from entering if their temperature is too high.
“The vestibule already had controlled access,” Jauretche says. “They’re setting up a camera system that is attached to the electronic lock, and if the infrared camera determines you’re over 100.4 (degrees Fahrenheit), it won’t unlock.”
Some companies might also implement testing for COVID-19.
Mark Patrick, senior vice president at the Spokane office of Alliant Insurance Services, has worked with a business partner at Phoenix-based public health database company STC Health to create a program called Strategic Actions For Employers Return to Work, or SAFE. The program launched late last month.
The four-part web-based program, which costs $15 to $30 per employee annually, includes guidance on screening and testing employees, and strategic planning for the workplace, as well as providing emotional support and relevant communications to employees.
Through the SAFE program, employers can upload their employee census, employees can take COVID-19 test vouchers to a participating pharmacy, and test results are sent directly to both the employee and the employer.
It’s a cheaper, more efficient way to test employees, Patrick claims.
“Each time they order tests, they’ll pay for the unit cost of the tests for however many employees, plus they’ve already paid our annual fee,” he says.
The program’s guidebook includes accountability matrices to help employers delegate responsibilities, as well as different overlays to help employers decide whether and how to reconfigure their workspaces.
Cashen says employers will need to consider their company culture when deciding whether and how to change their offices. Some offices may retain individual dedicated workspaces such as desks, while others may decide to transition some employees to what’s called hoteling, a reservation-based office management method through which employees can schedule time at a workspace as needed, rather than returning to an assigned desk every day.
“You might realize you need less square footage because some people are thriving working at home and are able to do better work remotely,” Cashen says.
Such unused space could be converted to collaborative meeting space, if it’s large enough to allow everyone to stay six feet apart, Cashen says.
Hoteling and large collaborative spaces are likely to remain part of office design for several years, she says.
“The offices of 2024 are still going to have social spaces, but they’re going to be cleanable and durable,” Cashen predicts. “There will still be focus rooms that someone can go into and have a conference call so they’re not affecting people, but I think there’s going to be less travel. People are realizing that we can actually get a lot accomplished virtually.”
For employees who aren’t working remotely, Cashen says it’s important to provide adequate handwashing facilities at the office.
“We’ve been finding locations and ways to integrate handwashing sinks that don’t look out of place within the office space,” Cashen says. “It’s mainly about function. How can we get sinks so that you can wash your hands without touching the door afterward? Some of our clients don’t have anything other than a break room sink or a sink in the bathroom.”
Jauretche says one of the biggest challenges to keeping office buildings safe has to do with elevators, and building owners and managers have struggled to find good solutions.
“Some are doing a very low maximum occupancy, like two or three people, with stickers on the floor that say, ‘Stand here,’” Jauretche says.
One customer has been trying to encourage workers to take the stairs instead of the elevator.
“We were looking at doing a little construction where the doors could stay open to the stairwell, but to meet code you have to have a magnetic latch, so if the fire alarm goes off, the doors close automatically. That takes some retrofitting if they don’t already have it in place,” he says. “Just by having stairwell doors open, more people will use it. They don’t want to wait for the elevator if they see the stairs right there.”
Patrick says some employers in other parts of the U.S. are looking to technology to solve the elevator problem, such as authorizing access through a code sent to an employee’s phone after they complete a health screening.
Cashen says that safety measures are just as much about helping employees feel safe as they are about helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Everyone has a different psychological need for what will make them feel safe,” Cashen says.