Considering the impact of perceived physical distancing and how we might plan ahead for our
It used to be that office densification was driven by a combination of real estate demands
and evolving demographic work styles. Now it’s clear that we need to rethink which
behaviours are acceptable and which belong outside of society’s post-pandemic comfort zone.
While shifts towards bench seating, co-working, flex seating, and hoteling have pervaded
workplace design trends of late, a rethink is in order surrounding the future of open,
As we work toward reopening our offices around the world, companies should prepare both
short- and long-term action plans that will ensure staff feel comfortable and safe in their
new working environments. Short-term solutions may include permitting only 50 per cent of
staff to occupy the office at a time, achieved via the staggered planning of benches and
workstations, with additional staff working remotely. This can be done by auditing the
current remote-working results to see which practices within a firm really need to be in the
office moving forward. It will drive companies to reconsider when and how employees
interact, resulting in a more economic use of space and robust application of technology to
facilitate meetings at a distance; and the redesign of common gathering areas, including
lunchrooms and cafes, to be more adaptable for both group and individual use.
Long-term solutions may include employees utilizing a mobile app that could monitor and
aggregate their work- and health-related data in one easy-to-use interface. Such an
application could provide up-to-date confirmation of an employee’s health data, in addition
to a custom interface to manage all their daily work experiences, including booking
conference rooms and workstations, accessing secure locations within the office, and
facilitating elevator requests. This could all be managed and tracked via a Revit digital
twin model of the space, as well as integrated IoT programming via tools such as Microsoft’s
While helpful, these short- and long-term solutions don’t in themselves define the size of
our new personal space bubbles. Perhaps our return to work will see increased eye contact
avoidance and headphone use — but here’s hoping there will be design solutions to promote
safe and reasonable interaction amongst colleagues and peers.
As businesses reconsider their physical footprint while workforces operate remotely, it’s
not yet clear whether less will be more when it comes to office square footage in the
workplace of the future.
Firms of all kinds are now inclined to consider whether the offices they shut down in the
face of the pandemic are the appropriate size for a workforce grown accustomed to conducting
business at home. The question on the minds of many leaders is whether or not the size of
their office should remain the same after the pandemic; the answer is not yet clear,
especially in the absence of concrete data from real life scenarios.
The needs and expectations of employees have shifted for the foreseeable future, and so too
should the physical environments they inhabit. To simply turn the lights back on and assume
things will appear ‘normal’, or ‘just as before’, seems unreasonable. One safe assumption is
that there will likely be a shift back to greater amounts of personal space, along with a
reconsideration of shared common space. Assuming that having less people in the office
should equal less square foot of office space per person is a simplification of the issue
that may prove useful in the short term, but troublesome for the future.
To begin answering the essential question of people and space in the post-pandemic
workplace, the following should be actioned:
• Analyze the present state of our virtual office environments
• Survey remote workers to understand the pros and cons of their experience working from
home to determine which practice groups are best suited for remote working in future
• Leverage technology, ergonomics and workstyles to assist the development of appropriate
budgets for home-office design
• Develop the metrics and test planning best suited to understand the implications of the
future state of work
With this information gathered, firms can begin to establish plans for a phased return to
work, along with a set of changes and improvements intended to optimize the workplace.
It will be very intriguing to revisit this discussion in future, in order to understand
whether our plans for returning to work produced lasting shifts in our collective
understanding of the workplace, or if it was just a short-lived blip in human history that
we are in a hurry to forget.
Putting returning employees' health first, while embracing the best practice principles of
design in the workplace.
The New Normal?
It’s quite remarkable how quickly humanity can adapt to change when a crisis occurs. Even
though we are traditionally creatures of habit, we have all had to step up and find a way
forward. In order to protect our health, and the health of our families, we have been
required to self-isolate or shelter at home. Our work life has morphed into our home life
literally overnight as one seamless environment, without any planning or thought. This level
and speed of change would have been unthinkable in a pre-COVID-19 world. Our habits and
daily behaviour have changed drastically and will ultimately impact how we view the outside
world once we return to it. Connectedness is dependent on teleconferencing with colleagues,
and expectations of success are altered to questions like “is it okay to stay in my sweats
today?” or “how do I keep my dog occupied while in a meeting?”
Many of our clients are asking us what the way forward will look like, or simply, “what will
the ‘new normal’ be once we return to the workplace?”
The development of a healthy experience, starting at building entry and throughout all
workplace settings, engagements and activities, is being thoroughly discussed given the
current climate and the anticipation of the return to the office. Many of the procedures we
have adopted in our evolving daily routines while quarantined at home can, and should, be
• Providing hand sanitizer stations at entrances and all interaction points throughout the
• Utilizing materials that impede bacterial spread throughout the space, such as nano-septic
films and coatings on all touch points, or copper/brass (inhibits bacterial growth) on
hardware and other common surfaces, as the majority of diseases are transmitted via surface
• Treating or infusing seating fabrics with anti-microbial sprays to help discourage the
spread of germs.
• Upgrading building air filtration/purification, increasing fresh air capacity and overall
air quality; access to operable windows is ideal.
• Increasing frequency of cleaning protocols for all common areas, with a focus on amenity
spaces and washrooms.
• Providing hygiene tools for personal work spaces would also be optimal. This can include
supplies for cleaning technology interfaces, disposable work mats for desk surfaces and
low-height clear separation screens attached to worktops that will also move with
We can also promote a more connected touchless environment, that can be activated by phone
through radio-frequency identification (RFID), Bluetooth or near-field communications (NFC)
for bringing IoT to life. Motion sensors, auto door operators, smart lighting and heating,
ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) controls, responding directly to individual needs,
can also promote a bespoke experience.
Will our experience of the pandemic change the way we value co-working spaces?
Over the last several years, the demand for choice, flexibility and autonomy in traditional
workspaces has grown exponentially. Shifts in demographics, advances in technology, and the
increased speed of decision making has resulted in workplaces being organized around
employees who prefer to choose where and how they work. New business models, driven foremost
by technology start-ups, have fuelled a rethink of how companies of all kinds can manage
exponential growth and embrace constant change. This has more traditional firms embracing
these models as an opportunity to foster innovation, attract talent and develop new
approaches to their business and office needs. These new models, referred to most often as
‘co-working’, rely on a key element, adopted in part from trends prevalent in the
hospitality industry: a community-centred environment, fostered via a collection of
club-member services designed to support creativity, productivity and collaboration.
Working remotely as a result of the pandemic has made clear that many professionals do not
need to be in the office to remain productive. It’s also made clear that returning to the
office will have its challenges, especially as we consider social distancing, hygiene and
the communal spaces present in most offices, including washrooms, lunch areas, ad hoc
meeting spaces, and meeting rooms. There appears to be one element still missing in our
global work-from-home experiment, and that is the human factor, which includes the social
connections and personal experiences that foster true innovation. The human factor cannot be
satisfied by technology-driven solutions like teleconferencing or virtual meetings alone.
Ultimately, the need for social interaction, team building and community engagement will
bring us together again in the not-so-distant future.
Given our current, and potentially long-term, approach to social gathering, the ability to
sell traditional firms on the human-centred advantages of co-working will likely be reduced,
as the world struggles to deal with the anxiety of personal contact, community spaces and
sharing touch-down space with strangers. Understanding whether we are in the midst of a
passing phase, or on the brink of a new tomorrow, is one of the largest challenges to
understanding the continued evolution of office environments. It appears that most
businesses are considering what a strategy for returning to work should look like, and what
to do with the office spaces they once occupied, both traditional and communal. While it may
seem sensible to return to private offices that promise safety via distance, spaces like
these no longer respond to the way we think, behave and undertake business.