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The Future of Workplace Design: 3 Insights From NELSON

by Chad Smith on March 9, 2021
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Until last year, the evolution of workplace design followed a consistent trajectory.

Survey after survey showed decision-makers were moving away from traditional office layouts and toward more agile work environments like activity-based working, desk hoteling, and office neighborhoods.

These more sophisticated open office concepts enabled employers to accomplish two important objectives — reducing real estate costs, and improving collaboration within an increasingly mobile workforce.

Now, as employers, real estate executives, and space planners prepare to return to the office following the pandemic, they are rethinking their approach to workplace design. They want to create spaces that give employees a sense of physical and psychological safety. They also want their workplace design to stay relevant for years to come.

In a recent article, our partners at NELSON Worldwide explored the future of open offices and flexible work environments in 2021 and beyond.

How will COVID-19 impact workplace design?

Design will focus on office safety instead of density

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Pre-COVID-19, prioritizing density was an effective way to maximize space utilization and break down barriers to communication. Now, in a post-COVID-19 workplace, employers are considering new, strict spatial requirements as they determine how to redesign their office space for safety.

Making the most of existing space and supporting connections among employees are still driving design decisions, but increasing density is no longer a key focus.

Instead, NELSON says, the foundations of workplace design in 2021 will be physical distancing, safety, and comfort, with a strong focus on overall health and wellness.

“If people don’t feel safe, they won’t return,” said Brigitte Preston, principal and interior design director at Perkins&Will, an architecture firm in Dallas, in the article.

NELSON cited a Gensler survey of over 2,300 full-time employees in which 70% of respondents said they would prefer to work in the office for the majority of the week once the pandemic is under control. However, 55% said they expected their employers to have stricter policies against coming in sick. Another 35% said they expected to see a greater distance between each working space.

And in a recent Verdantix report, 90% of corporate real estate leaders said they planned to implement physical distancing in their offices before reopening.

According to the U.S. General Services Administration, the typical standard has decreased from around 250 square feet per workstation in the early 2000s to about 190 square feet or less now.

Updating floor plans according to the CDC’s recommendations of maintaining at least six feet between people can be challenging. Fortunately, our space planning tool, Space-Right™, makes it easy.

Just set your distancing parameters, and the intelligent algorithm will automatically reconfigure your floor plans. It also identifies areas that are potentially unsafe for multiple people, such as small conference rooms originally designed to accommodate several people.

Providing a healthy and safe workplace

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The second pillar of modern office design, according to NELSON, is prioritizing health and safety.

That means we can expect to see more offices with antimicrobial surfaces like copper-plated door handles, as well as furniture and building materials that are easily sanitized. Reducing touchpoints in high-traffic areas like kitchens and break rooms by replacing cabinets with open shelves and purchasing more small appliances like microwaves and coffee machines can help employees avoid congregating in small spaces.

In addition to making design updates, building systems should also support the health and safety of the workforce.

HVAC systems should maintain proper ventilation, filtration, air circulation, and an optimal humidity level of 40-60%. Air filters should have a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) rating of at least 13.

Intelligent HVAC technology can automatically adjust the temperature, humidity, and air flow based on occupancy and real-time environmental conditions, which contributes to higher indoor air quality. Media filters remove dust, pollen, and other pollutants from the air outside, preventing this particulate matter from circulating through the building.

And because the quality of light in the office also impacts employee health and wellbeing, a core component of modern office design in 2021 is optimizing the distribution of natural light throughout the workplace.

This means using glass walls and doors for private offices to minimize light obstruction and installing partitions or panels made of translucent material. This allows you to maintain privacy without blocking natural light.

For the areas of the workplace where providing access to natural light isn’t feasible, an intelligent LED lighting system is a good investment. Unlike traditional overhead lighting that stays at the same intensity all day, intelligent LED systems adjust the level of brightness to mimic the patterns of natural light throughout the day. Research has shown this is better for employee health.

Embracing the comforts of home

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Most analysts now expect to see the first wave of employees returning to the office sometime in the third quarter. By then, your workforce will have been working remotely for more than a year. That’s why it only makes sense to incorporate more of the comforts of home into your workplace design.

One example is incorporating warmer, softer materials into the decor and furniture.

Another is offering more sophisticated amenities that focus on supporting mental and emotional health, such as a yoga room.

And biophillic design that incorporates natural elements, such as plants, can make your workplace more inspiring and enjoyable.

NELSON also recommends giving employees the option to work and host meetings outdoors when possible. Providing access to outdoor workspaces has been associated with measurable increases in employee happiness and engagement. And after a period where most of us experienced restricted access to the things we enjoyed, employees will welcome the freedom to work in the fresh air.

Keep in mind that accommodating your employees might extend beyond changing the physical workplace design — especially if your options for space updates are limited. If your organization is in an industry that requires private offices (such as law practices and financial firms) NELSON’s suggestion is to implement a staggered schedule where employees alternate the days they are in the workplace.

Space-Right Safe Distancing Made Simple

In addition, although a majority of the workforce will welcome the chance to work from the office again, many employees have grown accustomed to working remotely. One recommendation NELSON offers to incentivize employees to return is offering professional development and mentorship opportunities available on-site.

This gives employees the flexibility they’ve come to expect while fostering a more cohesive company culture.

Reimagining your office design for flexibility

NELSON emphasizes employers should take into account the fact that every member of the workforce has different thresholds for what they deem comfortable and/or safe.

And not every employee needs to be in the office the same number of days each week. Some may have a position that requires them to be on-site as much as possible, while others might only need to come in once or twice a week. Ultimately, it comes down to asking what your employees need to do their jobs and providing the best possible environment to support them.

iOFFICE offers a comprehensive suite of solutions to support a safe office reopening, including space planning tools, desk and room booking software, and visitor management software that enables wellness checks.

While these technologies support a safe reopening in the near future, they also allow you to build a more flexible office design that will support your hybrid workforce for years to come.

Learn more about our return-to-work solutions.

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