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The Fluid Workplace

The Fluid Workplace

Circumstances have forced us into a new normal. Once, most of us dreaded the commute to and from the office; now, we dread putting on real pants and shirts. “Zoom” was once a children’s show some of us knew; now, all of us know “Zoom” as one of the hottest cloud-based video communication options — allowing us to connect with our coworkers and clients. During this pandemic, most Americans are learning what it means to set up work from a virtual office. Reports show that 67% of employers have taken steps to allow employees to work from home. Consequently, the question that looms in everyone’s head is, “Will things ever get back to normal?” More importantly, will there be a new normal when we have beaten this virus? There are many indicators that, while some operations may remain business-as-usual, others will become a thing of the past.

Like it or not, our society has been put into overdrive when it comes to evaluating the infrastructure of what makes many businesses function. Where does this leave office design? Before, we were concerned with fitting in as many employees as possible; are we now designing to the new 6-feet rule? An open office environment was once desirable; are we now designing towards smaller private spaces? Building owners and CEOs alike will face the same question when they think about space — how do we maximize our real estate investment?

At the heart of any business is its employees. As I sit typing early in the morning before my four kids wake up, I relish the silence that prevails before a day of homework, meals, and arguments disrupt the calm. As much as I love my family time, as much as I abhor my hour-and-a-quarter commute, I still find myself longing for social contact with my coworkers. My commute now is from my kitchen to my makeshift desk in the family room. The unexpected joke, the informal discussion while getting coffee — little moments that break up the day at the office — are but a distant memory during our remote work. While staying at home is optimal for global impact, it simply does not give me the same rewards as the physical presence and stimulation of my fellow designers.

Perhaps this is the trial by fire we have all needed in order to shift our thinking and help us evaluate what a productive balance would look like. Reaching for the phone, now my only form of contact, I ask my brokers, my contractors, my clients, what this potential change means to them. How can we reach maximum profitability without sacrificing our health and, perhaps more importantly, our sanity? One contractor wondered, “Are handshakes gone? I can tell a lot about a person in their handshake.” So perhaps our immediate question is, how do we achieve a healthy, touchless office without losing the human touch (pun intended)?

As we return to work –and yes, we will return— we will have to conquer people’s immediate concern of health. We have all lived through the unpleasantries of cold and flu season; when one person in the office gets sick, they benignly share the wealth. Companies with a higher office-employee concentration, will take a larger productivity hit than those companies whose employees are distributed throughout many smaller offices, or even companies that have developed a staggered “in office vs. remote” work schedule. We, as designers, can help our clients by providing a “launch kit” for post-COVID-19 work that provides workplace readiness essentials which Cushman and Wakefield has termed, “The Safe Six”.

These include:

  1. Preparing the Building
  2. Preparing the Workforce
  3. Controlling Access
  4. Creating a Social Distancing Plan
  5. Reducing Touch Points & Increasing Cleaning
  6. Communicating for Confidence

Expanding on this, we can break solutions into an Order of Magnitude. We can offer a simple low-cost Step 1 for returning to work, such as pre-return inspections, preparing increased cleaning plans, and offering sanitation stations both at the building entry and the suite entry. Businesses can also decide who returns to work when, and stagger remote work to attain social distancing without having to spatially change anything in the work environment. This will also help eliminate the inevitable backup at elevators, lobbies, and other choke points that will have to be addressed in accordance with the new social distancing policies. And get ready millennials, you are actually going to have to do your own dishes and adhere to a clean desk policy. Ignore Mom’s words on how to share; common space at break areas and copy areas will now be ruled by social distance “bubbles”.

Step 2 in our Order of Magnitude, requiring some construction, are more touchless solutions. Many of us already use the ADA entry buttons even though we don’t need them. We simply do not want the “cooties” of those who came before us. This can become standard at these locations, whether ADA requires it or not. Dyson, Grohe and Moen all offer touchless faucets and hand dryers; it’s time to make the change if you have not done so already. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it can also be a strong marketing tactic as we re-engage in the new work style and promote our “Launch Kit” into this new era.

Step 3 in our Order of Magnitude will push designers to rethink the psychology of a space. Yes, we can all say that circulation should be clockwise; but, if my desk is 20’ counter clockwise from me and I work on a 10,000-sf floor plate, am I really going to go all the way around the space to get a cup of water? I’m going to venture a guess that if I can’t get my employees to throw their Redvine wrappers and paper Starbucks cups in the trash at their desk, there is no way I am going to get them to go ¾ of the way clockwise around the floor to get something to drink. The majority of the time, the path of least resistance is the one that will be taken. What does this mean for our design? It means that a larger number of small break areas and copy centers will be necessary to avoid the congestion and to keep a logical circulation path.

Step 3 may also mean traditional large conference rooms are replaced by more open “all hands” areas where people can be farther apart from each other while still gathering in a large group. Those closed spaces that remain should have floor patterns or furniture that also help keep the recommended six feet; a secondary door so that there are clear ingress and egress patterns; and dividers installed to provide additional safety precautions. And don’t underestimate the power of what will now become the elephant in the room: our IT system. These gurus will become our best friends as monitors are installed in areas to keep us remotely connected with coworkers and clients. These new IT best friends will also be tasked with expanding the speed of the existing systems. Remote workers will test the already stretched bandwidth in many firms and employee frustration will have to be resolved.

And lastly, let’s not forget about our reception. Many firms have already started to move away from a live receptionist and have begun using cameras and Ipads for check in. Just as hospitals have set up a checkpoint to protect others within the building, businesses should think about a holding area to limit the amount of interaction with guests.

Now that our employees have opened offices in their homes and we effectively have numerous satellite offices, we are all wondering when we will see light at the end of the “remote” tunnel. We, as landlords, building owners, designers, contractors, and brokers are all shaking our Magic 8 ball wondering what the answers will be. Rest assured, the Magic 8 ball will give each of us different answers. There will be short term answers and long-term answers. As with all challenges, united we stand. With the collaboration of our core teams, solutions will be developed and a new Fluid Workplace will evolve, one that may well bring us to an even better starting point than before.

Special thanks to Whitney Strotz with Cushman and Wakefield and Therin Kinman with Rudolph Commercial Interiors (RCI) for their input.