Our View Into a Post-Pandemic Workplace
Predictions of what the post-pandemic workplace will be have reached ridiculous proportions – from an overnight antiquation of the open office to total work-from-home governances the world over (the office is done for!). We’ve heard and read many a foolish idea in (over)reaction to how we should be proceeding.
But, it’s safe to say, we are all wondering what the future holds when the dust of COVID-19 settles around us and we finally begin to reenter the workplace. And we should be. The office can’t go back to just as it was.
As some states move to reopen businesses (ill-advised or not), each organization has some research to do and some decisions to make. How densely packed is your office space? How do your employees and customers interact within your space, and how often? Who in your office is most at-risk? What will your return-to-the-office schedule look like? Once COVID-19 is completely eradicated, what will your long-term work/office policies be?
We’ve been carefully gathering insights from designers in the field who are already working with clients to outline what their return to the office will entail.
Clients and designers are trying to strike the right balance between remote work and coming into the office.
“Work-from-home is a new reality for many people on a massive scale right now,” said Barry Ludlow, cofounder of Design Republic. “We do think some people won’t go back at all. The whole world has proven it works.”
“There’s a lot of noise and a lot of speculation right now. However, the first stop has to be looking at established guidelines – from the government, from OSHA. The biggest things we’re expecting to get guidelines for are the parameters for social distancing; use of PPE in the workplace; having hand sanitation spaces; limiting contact in the café gathering space; limited self-serve and bringing in more baristas and service people; having fewer end users touch fewer services; and protocols around safely moving through a lobby and elevators. Changes to HVAC will be costlier and longer-term, and deal more directly with landlord and building owners.”
“We’re involved with a project for a big tech company, and we’ve been asked to look at the implications of COVID – what the long-term permanent changes should be, and what the short-term adjustments are.”
Saying the open office is dead might be a knee-jerk reaction, but companies who use it will need to operate differently.
“We’ve all spent the last decade or more creating more places in the office and in hospitality and retail that foster a sense of community and of gathering – creating spaces for connection,” said Ludlow. “Now, we’ll need to rethink how we can use all of those spaces.”
Some changes to the office will be temporary.
“Meeting rooms that previously held 20 people might now be more suited to holding 6-8 people, with the current six feet of social distancing,” said Ludlow. “Would you rather have a meeting in a room with a few people and a mask on, or would rather all be on a Zoom call?”
But, design firms and their clients are looking more at the bigger picture.
“Those democratic open environments will still be coveted spaces, and spaces that people want to use,” said Ryan McNulty, principal at MBH Architects. “But, how are our clients going to deal with the liability around bringing people back? Short-term best practices are important, but policies will be critical to long-term success.”
Rather than solely looking at adjustments to the physical office space, organizations are considering work scheduling as a more carefully planned, less expensive and less permanent change.
“Some of our bigger clients who might not have been as open to remote work in the past, have now been given this experience with work-from-home that has made them feel more comfortable with it,” said Ludlow. “It’s made people move to a more agile environment, and to be more agile as an organization.”
“The office will still be a place where people will come to connect. But it will look different. Companies are looking at staggered hours and staggered days. The need for space most likely won’t go up in reaction to social distancing; if there’s any change at all, it will most likely go down because of creative scheduling.”
McNulty added, “The biggest concern we’re hearing from our clients is scheduling impacts – ‘what if we only bring 50% of our people?’”
“We’re working with clients on circulation issues like one-way lanes, and reducing the number of people sitting on a bench. For example, if a 100-person firm is all on benching, they know they can’t come back to that; but, they also don’t want to make any rash, unnecessary decisions.”
More than any time we’ve said these words in the past – and in this industry, we say them a lot – it feels as if designers really are working to form the future office. The physical office space will change – because the way we work is changing before our very eyes. From the designer’s point of view, clients are eager to experiment and extremely focused on collaborating with their design teams.
“We’ve been lucky that some of our long-term clients have really dived into the design schematic phase,” McNulty said. “They’re open to new things because of all of this. We’ve become much more focused on collaboration, developing best practices on sharing information – a new way to walk over to someone’s desk to ask them a question or work on something together.”
“And it’s really good to see across our industry that the technology the design community uses is proven to work from home. The shelter-in-place has forced our team to have more controlled, collaborative time, and part of that is because we all now realize that it’s so precious. Our meeting times together are now so focused, and our teams have picked up a lot more agility working in this way.”
In our quest to find true solutions for the pandemic-aware office of the future, we also spoke to John Wichmann, COO and cofounder of the workplace management software company, Maptician.
Maptician was originally founded to solve for space mis-management – you know, those clients who ‘don’t have enough space’, yet have an entire meeting room dedicated solely to storing their unused ping pong table…because they needed more workspace in their open office.
“We work with operational facilities management, HR departments, leadership, and end users to bring that really rich information to the people who need it,” Wichmann told us, “creating the visibility around their space. Once the pandemic began spreading, we knew we were in a position to be able to offer the types of people could use to make their spaces safe upon their return to the office.”
Maptician has introduced three new pandemic-geared tools to help organizations safely return to their offices. All three new tools, part of a suite called Maptician Flex, launched just two weeks ago, and are available for use today.
“In high-density offices, staggered returns will be really important,” said Wichmann. “We’re seeing preliminary guidelines of 25% max occupancy in many spaces. We’re already working with customers in these new tools, and we’ve seen a very significant pickup in interest in the last month. The software is giving people and companies the ability to react quickly to these new virus threats.”
The new Social Distancing Analysis tool provides interactive visualizations that help companies identify social distancing proximity risks. For instance, companies can do a trial-run simulation to see where the highest traffic problem areas in their office are, then use that information to adjust density and circulation.
“The Social Distancing tool gives organizations the ability to see how seats have been interacting, and then helps them plan out how they’re going to come back to the office,” Wichmann said. “It gives building owners and companies the opportunity to hold off on immediate changes to the physical space – changes that could costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to execute. We’re also working with architects and interior designers to help their clients manage physical adjustments.”
“It takes your pre-COVID floor plan and lights everything up – areas not at risk and areas with a social distancing risk,” said Wichmann. “Within the tool, you can set any distance of space you require between people. Then, we work with our customers on how they’re going to mitigate those identified risks – which can include moving things around, putting new policies in place, and adjusting wayfinding to reflect new circulation rules.”
Maptician has also created a new tool for following the path a virus takes through an office. It’s not perfect, but it could help prevent the spread of future viruses. If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, companies can automatically identify individuals who have been in close proximity to that person using Maptician’s Proximity Contact Tracing tool.
Maptician’s Staggered Work Schedules tool enables companies to create flex scheduling for groups of employees – or each individual employee – to have alternating day or week schedules, thus reducing office density. The tool also allows for staggered arrival and departure times so that building owners and companies can better stagger entrance and exit traffic. With the tool, each employee can access their personalized schedule via their phone or a colorized PDF.
Perhaps more than anything, these tools communicate to employees a sense of order and calm – something we’d all like to see when moving back into our offices.
“The schedule tool is really helpful for logistics, but it also helps companies and building owners show their employees and tenants that they’re working to fix or prepare the office for when they return.”
Maptician’s Map Editor tool lets customers easily input their exact floor plan (no need to know AutoCAD) to recreate their space virtually, or customers can let the Maptician team do it for you. Maptician, which also has integrated desk reservation and hoteling, is available under a single monthly price based on the number of employees or occupants an organization has. For an organization of up to 150 people, Maptician’s services cost $150/month; $399 for 500 people; $699 for 1000; and $1199 for 2000 people. Companies also have the option to add on groups of 250.
“A lot of the time we put together the floor plans for our customers, and then they update them,” said Wichmann. We hear from our building owner and company tenant clients that it has improved the efficiency of the relationship they have with their architect or designer. It’s easier for them to jump on a call together and quickly solve issues, leaving more time for the designer to complete other tasks.”
The future of work is here.