This piece originally appeared in:

Retrofit, January/February 2021

The Post-COVID Office Will Need to Emphasize Physical and Mental Wellbeing

In a matter of months, the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the world. People in every country have been forced to make drastic changes to protect their health and the wellbeing of those around them. Businesses also had to adapt. Those that were able to stay open and survive the quickly shifting economy were those that were able to institute effective safety measures and provide assurances to customers and employees.

For decades, offices were designed for a set of priorities that had nothing whatsoever to do with preventing the spread of disease. The focus instead has been on productivity, energy efficiency and occupant comfort. Those priorities still are very important and incredible advances have been made on all those fronts, but when a deadly, highly contagious pandemic takes the stage, designers and building professionals need to look at basic functions of the office in a different way.

Comfort and Health

“Broadly speaking, the AEC community in recent years began trading indoor air quality and its benefits to occupants in favor of energy conservation and reductions in carbon output, mainly by moving to recirculate more air throughout buildings and limiting the induction of fresh air,” says Karen Bala, director of design for Boston-based Dyer Brown. “Designers and owners are now moving toward striking a better balance, motivated by how this pandemic spreads.”

“The foundation of a great work environment is good air quality,” declares Elisabeth Post-Marner, principal at New York-based Spacesmith. “At the moment, a typical office building brings in as little as 11 to 20 percent of fresh air. Air quality affects health and productivity. COVID has made companies listen to experts who recommend doubling the amount of fresh air required by code minimums to circulate through a building. Studies have proven that doing this has a dramatic effect on health and productivity.” [Editor’s Note: See studies by the National Institutes of Health and Harvard Business Review.]

A recent survey from Delta Electronics Americas found that 53 percent of respondents would not feel comfortable working in a typical office building right now. One in three believe they are more productive working from home. Only 15 percent of respondents prefer working in an open-office layout while 47 percent say they would be most comfortable working from individual offices with doors.

It’s clear that we will need to rethink how we approach office space in the future. Employers and building managers are going to need to account for a shift in feelings of safety and security. This will mean changes to the office that are physical, behavioral and psychological.

“Historically, about 20 percent of an office space is used for gathering, and COVID has fundamentally changed that,” states Walter Marin, founder and senior principal of New York-based Marin Architects. “Conversations around the water cooler and the coffee machine are nowhere to be seen. The use of conference rooms is limited with meetings instead being conducted over social and video platforms. The open-plan office trend is on hold for the near future. The concept of the office as a giant living room is something we won’t see for a while.”

“Most offices are designed to encourage camaraderie and collaboration. It is unfortunate that the virus also likes these conditions,” adds Kailin Gregga, design partner at Seattle-based Best Practice. “I don’t know of any office that hasn’t made changes in the past year. There are many considerations to help ensure the safety of those in the office, including addressing air quality and ventilation, cleaning and sanitation, space between people, and even setting up contact-tracing systems and self-diagnosis.”

“There has been a trend toward balancing personal space with communal space,” notes Duffy DeArmas, partner at House of Sorcery, a Seattle-based design studio. “What will need to be added is a more deliberate separation of personal and communal space—and communal space options that spread people out while allowing them to engage and congregate.”

Home Work

One of the ways offices look to adapt to the new pandemic reality is by facilitating adjustments in behavior from occupants. In the past year there has been a major shift toward more work-from-home strategies, creating more flexibility for employees whose jobs are less tied to a physical office location.

It is likely that having a portion of their workforces telecommute will become a permanent fixture for most companies. Hybrid approaches will also be more common with staggered groups of employees coming into the office on specified days each week to minimize total occupancy. None of this means the office is going away.

“I don’t predict the workforce will remain entirely remote,” Marin says. “Human nature seeks balance and, while we’re working from home, it becomes much harder to maintain an internal clock that we can switch on and off at the beginning and end of a work day. In many ways, the stresses of working from home are much more significant. People are putting in more than 40 hours of work per week in an effort to justify what they are accomplishing and being paid for from their homes.”

“There has long been a conversation about working from home versus working in the office, and COVID-19 has forced our hand,” DeArmas adds. “Now that we have been stripped of the ability to be with our coworkers and immersed in our work culture, there is an opportunity for many companies to build an office experience that is more rooted in the human experience. Considering safety measures, biophilic design elements and community elements should be key in rethinking what the workplace of the future looks like.”