Home away from home: The changing workplace

Over time, the design and functionality of the workplace has evolved from the corner office, to warrens of cubicles, to the open office with ever increasing amenities. Recent stay-at-home orders mandated during COVID-19 closed many offices, requiring employees to work remotely. In the future, bringing workers back to the office will require physical and behavioral changes in the workplace, but it is still unclear how the pandemic will transform the office long term.

“It is important to think about COVID in office design, but to not overreact,” says Tony Ravagnani, AIA, principal of TRA Design. “We aren’t fortune tellers and don’t know how this will affect us long term. But once we get over this, the trends toward open seating and collaborative workspaces will continue. I don’t see everyone going back to high-walled cubicles.”

Architects provide design expertise as employers consider the future of the workplace. They also work with clients to develop immediate solutions addressing the impact of the pandemic on the office.

“The number one role we have with clients is as a company counselor and unbiased needs assessor,” say Melissa Baird, AIA, partner at WorK Architecture + Design. “We’re going to listen to everyone then address space planning, as well as the intangibles in an office: sound, views, privacy, and the glare on your computer screen.”

Many companies with existing offices can implement simple interventions such as hands-free faucets or foot-pull door openers. For organizations considering an office remodel or moving into a new space, architects offer solutions that address safety concerns and will continue to serve a purpose of creating healthier work behaviors after the pandemic.

“COVID-19 demonstrates that we need continue to challenge ourselves to be better and to innovate,” says Vince Terry, AIA, regional director of business development with Moody Nolan. “The pandemic is forcing us to think differently. Flexible solutions in the workplace are the way to start.”

Problem Solving

BHDP CareSource

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment reports identify more than 1,000 occupations. The vast diversity of professions and workplaces guarantees there is no one-size-fits-all solution to office design. Architects help employers find the right design for their employees by considering their problems, filtering the options, and offering a holistic solution.

“Architects should advise and become a partner with their clients and it starts by asking the right questions to help find the right answers,” says Tom Arends, AIA senior designer with BHDP. “We speak with a wide array of clients from a range of industries, which is an advantage on an office project. Design for People is a promise we make to our clients, and it is truly how we go about it. We try to understand the people who use the spaces before we design.”

Matching the mission, vision, and goals of a company with the needs of their employees helps architects offer design solutions that meet the specific needs of an employer.

“We start with general conversation about the openness of a space, essential adjacencies, and privacy needs,” says Ravagnani. “We show them images of other offices to find out what features they like and which design elements they don’t. There are a lot of stakeholders in an office setting so we involve as many people in the conversation as possible.”

Typically, clients have a building or neighborhood in mind before they approach an architect. Some clients come in with specific design ideas that reflect their corporate culture, such as an office layout that defines the hierarchy of the company. Companies may choose design solutions similar to their existing offices to reinforce organizational values, however others are seeking a transformation of the workplace.

“We like to stretch our clients,” says Terry. “We have charettes with our end users to ask them about their problems and concerns and what they think possible solutions would be for workspace and necessary collaborative space. We define the problem together then offer multiple ideas, discovering various levels of density, flexibility, and collaborative space planning, hopefully turning over all the stones so there are no regrets at the end of the day and they’ve seen all the options.”

Desk Duty

As more professions have adopted design-thinking and collaborative processes, offices are shifting from assigned individual desks to hoteling where task-based spaces are shared.

“Unassigned seating can be a more efficient use of space that provides more desirable options,” said Arends. “It provides employees a variety of choices to work where they need to work to get the job done. For instance, heads-down work requires a quiet zone. High-activity areas are used for collaborative work. Respite zones allow employees to recharge and decompress, such as customer service center employees who need a break to mentally recover.”

Unassigned spaces, although increasing in popularity will not work in every office environment. Some professions — lawyers, for example — will always need private offices, however they may still incorporate collaborative areas in the office for non-confidential work.

An activity-based work setting gives employees flexibility about where and how they work. Unassigned desks eliminate the clutter of employee’s personal effects so that individual desks and group workspaces are easier to clean. However, ease of sanitation does not always create a peace of mind for employees.

“People make their desk their safe space,” says Baird. “Ownership of an area can give employees a greater sense of security.”

The return to the office during this pandemic requires employee engagement as companies consider changes to physical spaces and adding new policies necessary to reopen safely.

Work and Play

Moody Nolan DHL office break area

Competition for talent has encouraged architects and owners to design offices that minimize environmental impact, support the health of building occupants, and offer an array of amenities.

“Bringing natural light into the workplace is highly valued,” says Terry. “We’re considering how the outside can be more accessible. Can employees access a roof garden or a patio while working? Could garage door walls bring the outside in?”

Adapting an existing structure or a historic building into an office is usually more sustainable than new construction. In addition, those properties often have features that function as amenities or highlight the uniqueness of the space, like windows that open to improve ventilation or exposed brick that gives warmth and texture to an office. Those design elements can also encourage employee attraction and retention.

“Companies are providing different amenities that give employees a sense of pride in where they work,” said Arends. “They’re looking at wellness and well-being such as making stairs more accessible inside or creating walking trails outside, reconsidering their food providers and what types of food are being offered, and provide ample daylighting and views. Healthy employees are generally happy employees.”

For companies establishing new offices, location choice is critical, including the consideration of parking and access to lunch options, nature, or cultural resources. Many offices are adding social features that serve as alternative workspaces but also providing opportunities for employees to recharge and interact.

“Companies have brought the idea of soft recreation — coffee bars and beer taps — into their offices,” says Terry. “It keeps staff in the office by giving them a Starbucks experience where they can collaborate and de-stress while building culture and keeping morale high. The next generation expects that. They aren’t going to settle for a cubicle.”

COVID and the Workplace

Communal spaces may be used less during the pandemic, but with some modifications, companies can continue to have those amenities available. Removing plush furniture can facilitate cleaning. High-top counters can provide alternative workspace and more opportunities for physical distancing.

Solving the design problem facing a client is the priority for an architect, which often involves balancing competing priorities. “The functionality of the space can suffer if you focus too much on the coolness,” says Ravagnani.

During the pandemic, companies with remote-working employees also need to address the challenges of working from home. In the home office, employees are more sedentary and may not have an ergonomic chair or desk. With many employees continuing to work from home, companies will be challenged to develop strategies to apply their wellbeing values to the health of remote workers.

Although the pandemic grinds on, workers are beginning to return to the office. The immediate need to address essential safety and sanitation requirements may temporarily outweigh a company’s environmental goals.

“With COVID, our clients haven’t voiced concerns over sustainability right now,” says Baird. “Offices are running their mechanical systems more to work on the air quality. We’re seeing clients request paper towels dispensers over air dryers.”

Over time, more efficient systems to improve safety and sanitation in the pandemic will be developed. Meanwhile, design elements that address sustainability and health, including access to natural light and air, will continue to be implemented.

Building a Flexible Future

As employers consider reopening offices, or continue with plans for new spaces, the ability to adapt to COVID-19 — and the next pandemic — is critical.

“The office is not going away,” says Arends. “Even if we continue working remotely, we will still need a central hub for the organization to fully function. We will see companies shift from off-site meetings to on-site meetings where remote workers will come into the office to experience the culture and collaborate. Companies need to give people options.”

Flexibility in office design is essential as the workplace moves forward. Adaptable floor plans and movable workstations can be rearranged for physical distancing and to provide multiple routes for employees to navigate a lobby or office.

Preparing an office to welcome workers back will require an investment of resources to address air quality and physical distancing, as well as developing policies for shared spaces and employee safety.

“COVID response should be temporary, affordable, logical, and simple measures,” says Baird. “Add outdoor dining space, remove furniture, switch to automatic plumbing and door fixtures. Creating a sense of security is the one thing employers can do right now.”

As architects work with clients across industries and office types, best practices to provide safety and encourage productivity will emerge and evolve. More than keeping up with the latest trends, architects’ deep knowledge of health, safety, and welfare will ensure the office of the future can rise to the next challenge.

The series, Architecture Matters, is supported by AIA Cincinnati. Learn more at aiacincinnati.orgThe views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the American Institute of Architects or the members of AIA Cincinnati. 

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Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter has a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums, and nonprofit organizations. She's the Executive Director of AIA Cincinnati.