Rethinking office
design to better
serve more 

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an industry-wide need to view design through a new lens 

October 26, 2020

When the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law 30 years ago, it triggered a multi-year cascade of changes to the way we approach office design. Over the course of three decades, businesses of all kinds adapted their spaces to better serve employees with a range of visible and invisible disabilities. These efforts continue today, and in many organizations, have expanded beyond simple accommodation; companies like JLL have set up inclusive company initiatives like the possABILITY Business Resource Group to elevate the voices of innovators in this space, while supplying support for employees with disabilities.

While this landmark civil legislation to prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities was the main driver for these earlier changes, the spectrum of pandemic responses is now driving the next wave and the commercial real estate industry must be prepared to push beyond simple ADA compliance.

Changes to how we approach design empathy

Empathetic design suggests a more rounded approach to design that is sensitive to a user’s feelings in addition to their physical needs. Individuals are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in vastly different ways and, as a result, businesses must be prepared to approach office designs more empathetically as they prepare for these employees to return to shared workspaces.

In addition to ADA compliance, which is now foundational for all office spaces, businesses should consider changes that will allow returning workers to feel safer, following months spent working from home under threat from exposure to the coronavirus.

Some employees could be very eager to return to ‘normal' with in-person, face-to-face meetings, client lunches and social time at the office. Others have been under severe stress, dealt with illness and loss, or may be both mentally and physically fatigued. In either case, employers can motivate them all with enhanced cleaning and physical distancing protocols and spaces that allow them to feel healthier.

Questions to ask about your space

Is your business able to offer a broad spectrum of working environments to meet this new range of individual needs? Does your office space allow for smaller, more private areas for individuals to work in relative privacy? Does it also have spaces for collaborative discussion and teambuilding, while still following new guidelines driven by health and safety compliance?

Are new health and safety guidelines being implemented in a way that accommodates a broad range of abilities? And does your organization have a plan for adapting your space as the global health crisis wanes and employees begin to require different types of support, both in and out of the office?

The pandemic has forced us to rethink office design, and in doing so, to be more considerate of the enormous range of abilities and subjective experiences that exist within our workforces. As an industry, it is our job to harness this moment to drive sustained change so that our spaces are designed thoughtfully and empathetically.