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Rethinking Workspace Density in Pandemic Times

May 7th, 2020

When it comes to working remotely versus an office environment, a well-designed workplace is still where most people want to be, according to an early 2020 Gensler study. But as professionals head back to the office after stay-at-home orders, and steps are initiated to support reentry, companies will be considering how to intersect a well-designed, high-functioning office with the next generation workstation that supports employee safety and well-being.

According to research conducted by firms such as Interior Environments, HNI, and Gensler, companies are anticipating a phased approach to office reentries, and timelines for these phases will most likely be longer than initially thought. Phase I – expected to last 12 to 18 months – will focus on the immediate options for de-densifying workspaces to support social distancing, while Phase II will involve evaluating and implementing more permanent solutions.Rethinking the Office Wordspace Post Covid19

Rethinking the Shrinking Workstation
With employees re-entering their office environments following weeks or months of isolation, pushback on the movement towards very open and shared office environments will be inevitable. This decade’s increasing shift toward large, open areas with ever-shrinking workstations is strikingly incongruous to post-COVID-19 attitudes. The previously trendy decrease in personal space and privacy will now feel like a personal liability for those working in those types of spaces.

Through pulse surveys and exhaustive data, employers are focusing on who needs to come back to the office immediately. Using tools such as density calculators, researchers are finding that to feel comfortable coming back into the office, workers need between 330 SF – 450 SF of personal zone space. This is a huge departure from the pre-COVID-19 density, where employers were getting creative to fit as many people as possible into workspaces (148 SF of personal zone space was about average, with cubicle spaces starting at less than 40 sf footprints).

Transitioning to Reentry
During Phase I of reentry measures to expand space around employees such as limiting the number of employees in a work area, ensuring everyone sits at least six feet apart or occupies every other workstation, rotating workstations so employees don’t face each other, and creating separation boundaries will help alleviate immediate concerns of existing workspace design.

Additionally, defining distance zones in the office is even more important today to encourage directional traffic and “safe zones,” or a space that enforces the six feet of social distancing rule. One way this can be accomplished is by using a Japanese term called Poka-yoke, or “mistake-proofing.” In the furniture and design world, the application of this concept means a piece of furniture can automatically create a distance zone to space people six feet apart by using modular walls, screens, planters or storage elements – enabling offices to facilitate immediate changes to their office layouts.

Planning for the Future
Long-term, more permanent design options will alter the face of workstations. Strategies for shared spaces, such as hoteling, free address workspaces, co-working, and splitting schedules will need to be considered to avoid the spread of disease. The design industry is already seeing the pendulum swinging back to more private spaces. Micro-offices may also gain higher consideration, where small work areas with glass walls create an open feel but provide personal space.

The Great Working-From-Home Experiment

Fortunately, for many employers, telecommuting has proved to be a feasible option. With the onset of COVID-19, today’s companies have been forced to step outside their traditional format of face-to-face communication and quickly integrate remote working arrangements. For many, the power of 2020 technology – high-functioning networking capabilities in combination with strong video conferencing platforms – provides an alternate option for decreasing the number of employees in an office space.

In the near term, telecommuting helps offices limit the number of staff while solutions are developed, and it supports those who aren’t quite ready to return to an office environment. Long-term, it presents options to completely rethink how office workspaces are designed.

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