In just a few short months, COVID-19 has completely upended our personal and professional lives in ways we never could have imagined. As we lean into the new reality and attempt to make sense of the world around us, we begin to think about the long-term impacts this pandemic will have on the future of the workplace. How will firms like ours (and our AEC industry associates) help create safer and healthier workplaces for many of the tens of millions of office workers across the U.S. who will eventually make a return to their workplace? What will the post-pandemic workplace look like? Let’s take a look.
Research indicates that indoor air quality can hold more pollution and microbial contaminants than outdoor air. Because people spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, it stands to reason that exposure to indoor pollution poses greater health risks than outdoor air even under normal circumstances.
With the current risk of COVID-19 remaining in the air for some time before it settles on surfaces, the CDC has recommended employers and homeowners increase indoor air ventilation by opening windows and adjusting air conditioning. This is sound advice. Clean indoor air has a substantial impact on the health and wellbeing of indoor workers.
There are many ways in which buildings today provide clean indoor air. In addition to ensuring the appropriate ventilation and air change rates, our engineer associates say that UV light integrated into HVAC can kill 99% of viruses and bacteria in the air.
Other improvements could include new air purification technology like AtmosAir™, which ionizes air particles to reduce microbes and airborne allergens, and HVAC ionization systems like Plasma Air, which contain air purification technology that can improve occupant health while reducing ongoing energy usage.
A person breathes between 17,000 and 30,000 times per day, making indoor air quality a critical and immediate area of concern for workers returning to offices when the pandemic ends.
Air quality at the micro level can also be improved with social distancing, a term of which we are now very familiar. Opening up some space around individuals and their work areas can have a positive impact on personal air quality and general wellbeing.
We don’t anticipate a significant shift from the high-density open office model, driven over the recent years by Millennials’ engagement in the workforce and their influence over the quality and volume of collaboration and engagement. With the impact that the current pandemic is having on our health and economy, we do anticipate changes to the ways in which space is allocated and how we will engage and collaborate.
Social distancing and remote work will continue to a lesser degree post-pandemic. This may translate into retrofitted and otherwise altered work environments that provide more square footage per user, such as longer benching surfaces of at least six feet and workstations with higher glass partitions and healthier spacing between clusters.
For remote workers who also spend time in the workplace, we anticipate that dedicated space, booths and/or other smaller private spaces, will outpace hoteling. These changes are not solely a response to safety concerns, but also the anticipated demand for privacy once workers transition back from telecommuting into an office environment.
Collaborative areas may be fitted with smaller pods to reduce congestion and with modular furniture and moveable partitions to allow employees the opportunity to adapt open and closed spaces as necessary for the health and well-being of employees.
We have seen a surge in shared and amenity spaces over recent years with high social contact and engagement, including conference centers, multipurpose cafes, and lounge rooms with gaming. To maintain healthy engagement and collaboration, employers will need to adopt stricter cleaning protocols and better hand hygiene, including hand-free sanitizer stations within all of these high-touch areas.
Personalized access to spaces will also have to be reconsidered. Touch-free products with motion sensors that open doors and activate lights, as well as security cards or fobs that automatically activate smart doors when an authorized user is detected, will be useful as we look to eliminate the need for touch.
In restrooms, UV hand dryers and motion-sensored restroom doors would cut down on microbial spread. And, pantries with motion-sensored faucets and light fixtures, as well as touch-latch cabinets, rather than pull-based hardware, would allow users to refrain from touching the cabinets with their hands, also minimizing microbial spread.
With COVID-19, many of us have learned that certain surfaces might hold onto viruses and bacteria longer than others, and since about 80% of infections are transmitted by touch, we have to rethink the use of materials and surfaces in the workplace.
Antimicrobial additives integrated into door handles, countertops, carpeting, and switch touch plates are controversial. However, in workplaces with gym amenities, the use of antimicrobial flooring can help reduce the spread of bacteria that transfers between bare feet and surfaces.
Copper, currently integrated into products like Corian® Solid Surface, and other naturally occurring antimicrobial materials can be used without concern. Copper resists the growth of mold and mildew and can eliminate microbes in mere hours rather than days, making it an ideal touch-surface material, according to the Materials Council, consultants to the architecture and creative industries.
Research on surfaces that ward off superbugs is ongoing and necessary. Recent studies on shark skin, which has adapted to resist the attachment of living organisms, suggest that surfaces that mimic the tiny ridges and grooves of shark skin can help ward off microbes.
COVID-19 has isolated many of us to our homes. While office workers nationwide have lost the physical connection to colleagues, our collaborative spirit remains intact. Adapting to this new way of working, we have had to work closely with corporate IT teams to arrange for home-based conferencing, and other remote setups, because team engagement and communication are more critical than ever.
Technology will need to keep pace with the ongoing demand for tele- and video-conferencing as some workers will continue their remote arrangements when the pandemic abates. This may translate into the application of furniture that integrates and supports communications technology and immersive conference rooms that allow groups and remote workers to meet and collaborate virtually.
Even before an office space is leased, technology that helps lease and manage commercial real estate (PropTech) can support our social distancing efforts by way of virtual office tours that reduce foot traffic within buildings.
The WELL Building Standard®
The WELL Building Standard® is a performance-based system that monitors and promotes features of the built environment that impact human health and well-being, including air, water, nourishment, light, fitness and comfort. We believe the WELL approach will become more prolific post-pandemic because it prioritizes the well-being and health of the user.
The balanced approach of WELL responds to both the hard and soft elements that workers encounter within the workplace every day. Having already discussed the ways in which COVID-19 will change many of the hard elements (hygiene, air quality, etc.) within the workplace, let’s now take a look at the impact COVID-19 will have on the soft elements of physical and mental wellbeing.
When workers return to their offices, having emerged from the confines of their homes, their professional lives will be upended again. Employers would be wise to create a soft landing for their employees once the pandemic has ended. Finding inspiration from WELL standards (in lieu of certification) is a great place to start.
One design approach that aligns with WELL is biophilia. Biophilic design looks to mimic nature to produce the effects that the natural world has on humans. Research has proven that humans are healthier and our immune systems are better able to fend off pathogens when we are close to nature, whether real, virtual or manufactured. Biophilia in the workplace would include daylight harvesting, living green walls, nature sounds, and many other elements that mimic nature.
In addition, we anticipate more space accommodations will be made for yoga and meditation, activities that promote improved lymphatic drainage and immune functioning. Other healing modalities, such as music, inspirational imagery and intentional color palettes will also take center stage.
One thing we are certain about is that COVID-19 will leave a heavy mark on our lives, change our routines and the way we work for years to come. As architects and designers, however, we have the unique opportunity to identify, study and apply practices that will have positive implications for the health and wellbeing of workers. As such, we promise to do our part to continue delivering solutions that help you and your employees thrive and stay healthy.