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Redesigning the Workspace in an Era of Social Distancing

By Chrissy Boston, NCIDQ, LEED AP

As designers, we are problem solvers. Prior to COVID-19, we were challenged to design workspaces for our clients that supported their values and how they worked. Now as we are returning to the workplace and cities are re-opening, we are further challenged to develop solutions to create a new workplace and figure out what that looks like. This new workplace is not a return to how things were but a need to create a place that is not only safe for employees but also smart for business.

Everyone has experienced the COVID-19 situation differently based on their personal experiences, so the return to the workplace can’t be a one size fits all response. Employers need to recognize both the emotional and physical aspects of well-being and be willing and able to be flexible as they establish their return to work protocols.

Before the pandemic, workspaces wanted to be diverse and flexible to support different ways of work. Today, employees still want the diversity and flexibility to support a balance between collaboration and individual work. Add to that the need to keep employees safe and maintain cleanliness and social distancing and we are faced with the need to develop new strategies. The return to the workplace gives employers the opportunity to develop short term and long-term solutions. Both solutions will involve more change than simply than rearranging furniture and the adding hand sanitizer stations.

In addition to increased sanitation protocols and the reconfiguration of furniture to allow for social distancing, graphics and wayfinding can be used to help employees maintain distances and designate circulation routes. Each facility will also need to make decisions around access to visitors, which could mean not allowing visitors in the space, creating separate spaces for visitors, restricting deliveries to be as contactless as possible, or a combination of the three. More extensive modifications might include spreading out smaller pantry areas throughout the office and modifying our HVAC systems to utilize more outside air.

Offices will need to be adaptable in order to respond to the next situation that presents itself, whether it’s an environmental, economic or cultural disruption. Creating an environment that is flexible with high-performing spaces to support both focus work and collaboration along with flexible work from home opportunities gives employees a sense of control in an uncertain time and ensures they know that their wellbeing is important. As designers, we will be challenged to help our clients navigate these options to develop a new workplace that will support their employees and business.

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