COVID-19 has affected how office space will be designed, says Houston expert
The last nine weeks have thrust businesses large and small into an experiment unlike anything we might have ever imagined. The impact has the potential to separate businesses that will stagnate versus those that will accelerate and thrive.
Our workplaces may become smaller as we realize we don't all need to be there at the same time, but they certainly won't go away. They will, instead, be more human-centered, more technologically robust, and more resilient for the next time. So, a warning too: If the office is unsafe, scary, or demeaning — if it doesn't put people first — employees will vote with their feet.
Office workers have been empowered with the sudden ability to choose where, when, and how to work. And, certainly there have been starts and stops and plenty of stories of less-than-ideal execution, but by and large, the experiment has opened our eyes: Work has not stopped, our people are trustworthy, and, in fact, we found out they have kids, dogs, pictures on the wall, bedrooms, and kitchens just like us.
So, perhaps counterintuitively, the office is more important than ever. As a place to provide a technology offering we don't enjoy at our kitchen table, as a place to better support small group work beyond the tiny real estate of our laptop screens, and as a place that physically represents what our organizations are truly all about. The role of the workplace has never been more critical to business success.
Here's how this work-from-home experiment has affected the office space — from a design perspective.
Planning and systems
The first impact on workplace design will be the approach to simple planning. Flexible, modular planning logic and building systems will have a distinct advantage for organizations as their physical needs evolve.
Institutionalizing 6-foot distancing requirements will create workplaces that are more resilient and ready for the next one — who among us now believes this is a one-time event? Individual workspaces and generous circulation paths are not just safer but help contribute to a sense that is truly a great place to work.
Nimble spaces that can change overnight from large to small or open to closed will be supported by flexible building systems, planning that prioritizes daylight and the outdoors for all, and mechanical systems that deliver clean, fresh air. Look to landlords and building owners in the race to advance the use of sophisticated filtering, fresh air, raised access floor and daylighting.
Workspaces will continue to be a combination of open and closed offices, but caution to those who believe this marks the end of the open office. Dimensions and planning arrangements will simply build in proper physical distancing. As cleaning protocols and standards become institutionalized, shared seating will accelerate the desire to reduce overall area requirements but create highly functional solo seats.
This acceleration to sharing will be characterized by high quality materials, lighting and ergonomics with a decided "BYO" ethos. Bring not only your laptop, but your keyboard, mouse, and pack of critical office supplies. Your personal cooler with your day's food and drink simply plugs in at your seat and leaves when you do.
And, you won't forget to wipe it down when you arrive and again on your departure.
Meetings and how they occur may go through the most significant physical change. One of the primary functions of the new workplace is to provide space that can support small group settings that simply cannot exist from the kitchen table. Meetings of two-to-six with proper social distancing, rich technological tools, and seamless accommodation for artificial intelligence, virtual reality and virtual participants will mean chairs and individual tables that are all easily movable. Look for less of a need for physical enclosure and more flexible settings. Big, old school meetings, training, and the meetings designed around a giant beautiful conference room will go virtual.
Your friend the landlord
The first landlord that tags their building as "Certified Clean" will have the decided advantage and a new definition of Class A. Look for landlords to promote features and amenities that augment the tenant experience: Coworking spaces — visibly and constantly cleaned, food and drink offerings — manned, cleaned, and sanitized of course, and technologically-robust meeting settings will provide hubs for effective work as either additions to tenant spaces themselves or as free-standing neighborhood hubs. And look for these hubs to move out of CBDs to help transform Work from Home to truly Work from Anywhere. Think of an in-between spot between the binary choices of downtown or the kitchen table.
The requirement that the workplace must be a compelling human-centric place has never been more critical to business success. An organization's most valuable resource are the people who create the company's culture, live the purpose and drive its values. Those people are now empowered to work anywhere — the workplace is more important than ever to draw the most talented teams and drive business performance.
Larry Lander is a principal at Houston-based architecture and planning firm PDR.