A successful re-entry of office and commercial space is all about preparation, safety, and sense of place.
For many of us, home has become work with COVID-19 requiring that we shelter in place. Now, as talks about re-entry begin, so have questions about what that will look like.
Let’s be clear: the offices you left are not going to be the offices you return to. The pre-coronavirus workplace was designed for creative collisions; it’s now getting a makeover for the social distancing era. And people are confused.
A recent Bloomberg article described the situation as a “mash-up of airport security style entrance protocols and surveillance combined with precautions already seen at grocery stores, like sneeze guards and partitions.” I spoke with a number of industry experts in Dallas-Fort Worth to gain a better understanding of our new normal.
The path to business recovery is evolving and fluid, but here are some things we do know.
Experts say the return to the office will require a carefully choreographed course of action and long-term efforts. Some of the critical design techniques to consider are reconfiguring flex spaces, going back to assigned seating, and tracking who sits where to help facilities teams prioritize cleaning plans for areas being used.
Cushman & Wakefield, which recently released a comprehensive guide for real estate tenants and landlords, says the experience with clients in Asia suggests that reopening workplace and commercial establishments requires a great deal of forethought. Business leaders across the United States are improvising as fast as they can to prepare for the re-entry of employees, even as the coronavirus is far from over.
Experts say company leadership should be asking questions such as: Should there be a balance between on-site and remote work? What is the best way to use the time when people are physically together? How much physical space might be required–given the shift in workplace dynamics? How can people set up areas in the workplace (and at home) that support an increase in virtual engagement with clients, partners, and other team members? Do we have a plan in place if reopening fails?
How those questions are answered will truly set the tone for the future of office space–and much like everything else we have seen with coronavirus, we are facing a lot of unknowns.
“COVID-19 has created an extraordinary time in our history, disrupting everything from work styles to information systems to supply chains,” says Cindy Simpson, co-managing director of Gensler’s Dallas office. “We have never experienced anything of this magnitude before. It’s a call to action for how we need to think about designing for resilience, not just in terms of sustainability, but also to adapt to change.”
To do this effectively, Simpson said companies must have a way to measure what they’re trying to achieve so that space planners can design that intention into the built environment.
“In the long-term, the next frontier in workplace design will emphasize building better data and analytic systems for commercial real estate and offices to learn more about the space itself and how people use it,” she said.
In the short-term, businesses should prepare for a more discerning workforce that will expect continuous, credible assurances that they are working in a safe environment.
“I think the bigger picture is we have to be resilient, we have to be adaptable,” she said. “We should use these events as a way to use our ingenuity to come up with solutions that will be better in the long run.”
Preston points to things like air quality and smart building technology.
“If we use technology to indicate those things, I think that will go a long way to help people feel safe, but it’s also healthier, right? “We can use these strategies to create spaces that are going to be, in the end, healthier and better for us.”
There are no guidelines on how many people to phase into the office beyond the six-foot distance measurement. Among the resources out there, Cushman & Wakefield created a Recovery Readiness Task Force and launched a social distancing product called Six Feet Office. (Click here to watch a video to learn more about the six-foot office)
According to the firm’s report, this will include transparent displays of updated safety, health, and wellness information and resources for employees, visitors, and occupants throughout the building and specific workplace.
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