The day after: Exploring the new “normal” in workplace design

The COVID-19 pandemic has universally disrupted our lives in unimaginable ways. While it has immobilized the world physically, virtually, we’re more active than we have ever been and in ways we could have never foreseen. The dissolution of global boundaries has become even more prominent as we communicate and collaborate across digital channels, embrace new technologies and acclimatize to our “new normal”. This is truly epitomized in the way we work.

As companies across sectors embrace new ways to work, communicate and collaborate, architects and designers must strategically evaluate and explore which behaviors may stick long after people return to the office. In short, how could the current pandemic influence how we design our workspaces in years to come?

At Perkins and Will, we have begun exploring what our own re-entry into the workplace will look like and what modifications will be required. Our studio in Toronto moved into a new collaborative space in the heart of downtown in October 2018. We designed our studio by utilizing a free address strategy coupled with varied areas for collaboration and community. The design optimized our footprint, embracing a more densified layout, while providing our employees with the ability to choose where to work, to be curious, experiment and learn.

A view of the fabrication shop in Perkins and Will’s Toronto office.

As workplace designers, we gravitate to changing the space first but, in this case, we will have to explore new strategies for how we work and write new policies to respond. While the modern workplace typically embraces a more densified layout with a higher sharing ratio to optimize utilization of space, the pendulum must swing in the other way. Companies will eschew the “sharing economy” of working and collaborative vignettes for a more individualistic way of working, by understanding work styles more, and responding in a thoughtful way.

The Acceleration of Convergence

Historically, workplace design has been influenced by many different design disciplines and typologies. In more recent years, we have integrated hospitality and residential influences into our offices to create rich, welcoming environments that blur the boundaries between work and play.

A lounge and full kitchen provide room for gatherings at the Toronto office of Perkins and Will.

In the wake of this current pandemic, our firm has seen an almost universal desire among clients to borrow design best practices from different markets. Our science and technology clients are interested in how their highly collaborative lab spaces might look and function differently as workplaces in the future; our healthcare clients are considering new ways to design areas for medical staff with a hospitality bent; and our K-12 and higher-education clients are asking how “social distancing-friendly” urban design might factor into the look and feel of their campuses.

This “convergence” of disciplines has been a growing trend for some time now—but the pandemic has accelerated it considerably.

Post COVID-19, we anticipate our workplace clients may be looking to healthcare interior design and transportation trends to inform their corporate interior design decisions. As workplace designers, we will be looking at materiality in different ways and examining how people move through spaces as critical to design success.

When we return, there is no doubt a certain fear of contagion will linger. Now more than ever, we will continue to focus on reviewing our Precautionary List and will encourage our clients to resist taking a knee-jerk approach, for instance, in asking us to specify antimicrobial products and other materials that are potentially toxic to human health.

Employees will have heightened awareness of personal and social hygiene. But this doesn’t necessarily mean we should reintroduce the cubicle and work in silos. We will need to create more flexibility and choice for employees to quell the anxieties of returning to a shared workspace. These measures will need to be coupled with new policies that demonstrate new maintenance protocols, new HR policies and new staggered work times.

Break-out spaces provide room for private calls and meetings.

Ultimately, as workplace designers, we will need to test and pilot re-integration as we go.  We will need to measure our successes constantly, look for feedback from employees on a consistent basis, and tweak as we go. We need to react to this situation with compassion and transparency.

The Technology of Sharing

We will likely see the increase of touchless and sensor technology in the workplace, as companies seek a stronger approach to preventing germ spread. We may even see a big disruption to existing product design as we know it. This may include doorless, airport-style washrooms with individual stalls and anti-splash sinks. Conference phones and elevators could become sensor-activated if pushing buttons is perceived as a legitimate health risk.

We will be required to re-configure shared amenities like kitchens, and re-examine our communal elements, like shared utensils. During the transition phase, we may look at single-use containers that are recyclable or compostable.

Workplace designers can also use design to influence mobility and movement through a space, and to control the flow of traffic. While we were once prioritizing small hospitality vignettes dispersed throughout a workplace, there may be a bigger focus on how we get employees from Point A to Point B. That could mean wider hallways and increased wayfinding to manage the flow of employee traffic. Washing stations could be strategically placed at the front entrance of offices—a luxury sink bar may become as coveted an amenity as an espresso bar.

Capturing the Nuance of Collaboration

With uncertainty defining our collective experience, we know that our return to public life will not be without significant developments and changes. We might not know when we’ll be heading back to work, but we can assume we will likely take a staggered approach, with some employees remaining remote.

From an operations standpoint, there are a lot of questions to ask about what the first day back at work will look like. Like everything else, there are more questions than answers, but now’s the time for architects and designers to start asking them, and to start thinking about how our (and our clients’) core values can translate to a post-pandemic world.

Part of what has made working remote possible for many organizations is the easy availability of technologies allowing us to collaborate, meet and ideate virtually. These digital platforms might offer some solutions while contributing to challenges. For designers and architects who regularly participate in brainstorming and ideation sessions, a virtual platform has limitations in offering the spontaneous environment required to be truly creative.

This new format of virtual environments doesn’t allow for casual in-person chats, whether it’s brewing coffee in the kitchen or passing each other in hallways. It’s in these moments where information flows freely and sparks great ideas. We’ll need to decide which technology platforms we’ll continue to use, and how to make collaboration seamless within a fractured workplace.

Ultimately, we must not forget that our definition of what “normalcy” is post-pandemic is still up for debate. While some sectors (and some family dynamics) are better suited to the work-from-home structure, this is not true for all. While we may be temporarily acclimated to the conveniences of teleconference calls in our living rooms, the urge to interact, socialize and form connections with our colleagues face-to-face, in person, will not go away. Companies recognize that being present is part of creating the connections that lead to the building of brands, cultures and innovation.

Navigating the workplace and our shared reality, once it’s safe to do so, will be uncharted territory for everyone. Despite the magnitude of what we’re currently experiencing, there is always inspiration to be found in human resilience and adaptability.  We’ve seen many organizations and individuals step up, be nimble, and take necessary steps to protect employees across the workforce. Together, we can bounce back and build better and healthy work environments for us all.

Janine Grossmann is the Principal of Corporate Interiors at Perkins and Will’s Toronto and Ottawa studios. Janine has been recognized as a Fellow and Past President of the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario.