How COVID-19 is changing workplace design

New health standards have companies adapting offices with a focus on tech

August 12, 2020

The ongoing pandemic has sent landlords and businesses racing to redesign their offices to meet new health requirements and respond to a workforce that has a heightened concern for health and wellness.

It’s not just about moving desks six feet apart or putting barriers between them. New air filters, signage routing people to the coffee maker, and hi-tech products previously seen as optional — like ultra-violet lights to disinfect surfaces, or ways to use elevators without pushing any buttons — have moved front and center.

COVID-19 is fundamentally changing how offices look and operate. Despite costs involved, workers’ well-being is driving the modifications.

“Knowing these precautions are in place can give employees confidence that their return to work will be safe,” says Ashley Rowland Taylor, Director, Strategy for Big Red Rooster, a JLL company. “The thing that we need to be cognizant of in designing post-COVID workspaces is to not over-engineer health and safety in a way that makes it feel sterile.”

With this in mind, technology-based solutions are one place companies are looking to first.

Keeping the office germ-free through technology

Many organizations have already adopted touchless office technologies, such as bathrooms with light-activated sinks and hand dryers. Now, technologies that were seen as nice-to-have — from apps on mobile phones to control lighting, temperature and AV equipment, to doors and elevators that open with corporate badges — are being added to reduce employee contact and ensure cleanliness.

Blue Cross Blue Shield has even adopted a QR code program for cleaning desks and conference rooms.

“Basically, after somebody finishes with their desk or meeting room, they scan a QR code which then notifies a porter to immediately come in and clean it,” says Nakira Carter, Vice President, PDS at JLL. “So, if someone comes in 15 minutes after you’ve left, they can feel very confident that the desk or meeting room they are in has been cleaned and sanitized.”

Companies have also started using ultra-violet light to disinfect offices when no one is around, since UV rays can be harmful to humans. Columbia University’s Center for Radiological Research has developed new light technology called far-UVC, which in low doses can kill viruses and bacteria without producing harmful rays.

Both of New York’s Magnolia Bakery locations have installed “cleanse portals” — they look like slim metal detectors — that use this technology. Customers step in, turn 360 degrees and remain for 20 seconds before entering the store. It might not be long before office-building owners start implementing this type of technology as another tool in their arsenal to ease the minds of workers and guests who enter.

Ways to de-densify

Companies have been staggering the number of employees allowed in the office each day, roping off every other desk, or finding other creative ways to keep a distance. “Try alternating desks or have them face away from each other,” says Rowland.

Some companies have installed “desk pods” for up to four employees that allow collaboration while still being physically distant. Others are utilizing unoccupied meeting rooms to lessen the number of employees out on the floor.

“You’re going to start seeing collaboration spaces being used more creatively,” says Carter. “They can house two or three employees at a time while still socially distancing from each other.”

Although employees might not go into the office every day — they may work from home or a coworking space to avoid long commutes — it’s going to become a place where people go to collaborate, engage and interact with their colleagues and less so about sitting at a desk all day.

“I think (the office) will be much more dispersed, it will be more purpose-fit,” says Luke Rondel, Director of Channel Partnerships at Saltmine, who recently spoke at the MIT World Real Estate Forum. “So less of a generic desk in a building with 1000 of your colleagues.”