Guest Post by Scott Vieth, AIA, Principal and Senior Project Designer with Design Collective

For thousands of years, humans have looked to physical space to treat sickness and promote health.

During the 1300s, churches increased in size as Europe and Asia were ravaged by the Black Plague. When cholera spread in the mid-1800s, water-based sewage systems were developed to remove sewage typically discharged into tight streets based on the belief that bad air spread disease. In New York City, Frederick Law Olmsted convinced authorities that “open spaces would become the lungs of the city,” resulting in Central Park.

Beyond space, materials specification evolved based on health concerns. In bathrooms, kitchens and laundry rooms, porcelain tile or linoleum, surfaces that are easily cleaned, replaced carpets and drapes. Wood fixtures also disappeared in favor of porcelain. White paint replaced wallpaper to reflect cleanliness.

With every health-driven policy enacted, architects and engineers adapted. The New York State Tenement Housing Act mandating every room have an outdoor facing window led to the creation of lightwells. A New York City Board of Health order that windows should remain open to provide ventilation even in winter gave rise to steam radiators in rooms to provide heat.

For thousands of years, humans have looked to physical space to treat sickness and promote health.

History tells us that for health-driven crises, we reshape our physical environment. The current COVID pandemic is likely to be no different, as it is already altering the way we work. The question looming is, what impact will this have on the physical workspace that supports our work?  Does a year of largely working at home provide lessons that could translate to a better work environment?

COVID Upends Workplace Trends

In 2018 only 3% of the workforce worked from home, and workplace design reflected an accommodation to populate the space. 1980s’ design of closed perimeter offices gave way to more open environments by the 2000s. With the benefits of collaboration, serendipitous encounters, and mentoring understood better, the workplace evolved further through the 2010s. Workstations gave way to workbenches, meeting spaces took on a variety of sizes and configurations, and daylight penetrated deep into spaces.

Not that these changes came without problems. Difficulty doing focused work along with visual distractions resulted in organizations starting to rethink the idea of smaller workstations footprints and open design.

Then came March 2020. COVID-19 changed the workplace instantly. Home offices became more than a luxury for those fortunate enough to have one, while many transitioned to dining room tables, sofas, basements, and attics as makeshift workspaces. As the pandemic lasted, adaptions were needed to address the challenges of the physical space compounded, for many, by subpar technology and internet access.

Lessons from Working at Home

Despite the challenges of working at home, a 2021 Harris Poll identified a marked change in how people wanted to work. Pre-COVID, 37% said they wanted flexible work arrangements. Post-COVID, that number rose to 56%. This is nuanced, with 70% of workers wanting to return to the office, but not full-time.

Some of the drivers for this change are obvious. Many workers reported both emotional and time benefits of not commuting, casual dress, and having flexibility in their daily schedule. Less obvious were the benefits reported in the physical environment: access to daylight and natural ventilation; the ability to customize or rearrange their work-at-home space to accommodate that day’s tasks; access to healthy snacks; and an ability to focus without distractions inherent to open office environments. Together, these benefits contributed to a reported boost in mood and productivity.

These benefits were tempered by the well documented challenges, ranging from insufficient internet connections to competing demands with family and pets to a lack of access to office tools like copiers and printers. Many reported an inability to stop working at the end of the day due to a lack of separation between work and home.

The length of the pandemic also revealed the value of daily human interactions. The inability to have spontaneous collaboration, the loss of office culture, and the lack of energy from coworkers have weighed on many.

It’s not surprising that in the same Harris Poll, only 12% said they wanted to work from home full-time.

Incorporating Lessons

So, how can these experiences make office spaces better suited to work post COVID-19? There seem to be multiple paths emerging for organizations trying to bring people back to the workplace.

Organizations should reassess how workers use physical space. Hoteling is one option, giving workers the ability to either pick a workstation or office upon arrival for the day or signing up online to reserve a spot in advance. This option both supports a smaller footprint and allows employees to pick space based on that day’s tasks. The office becomes more of a hub with meeting space, access to equipment, and a variety of workspaces. This scenario enables employers to give their employees flexibility in where to work or provide a strategy that accommodates alternating office days during the week.

For those encouraging workers to work in the office more of the week or full-time, the workplace should embody the positives uncovered from working at home. To enhance focused work, organizations should re-evaluate both the number of offices as well as the number of collaboration spaces and their variety. Acoustics should also be a higher priority with the increase in virtual meetings expected to continue. Open offices environments should feature quiet workspaces with appropriate technology for staff to utilized when needed. Daylight and views, outdoors access or natural ventilation, and healthy snacks are all strategies that have documented benefits to work performance and mood.

Making Change a Positive

So how does an organization plan for these changes and consider their options?

One aspect organizations must consider is that physical design and policy change is also a cultural change. Making the change work happens with stakeholders and users, beginning with a discovery and programming phase to identify needs, desires and identify goals. This in-depth process helps organizations create a program of space needs that establish physical requirements and the qualities of each space as well as key relationships to other spaces. Lessons learned from groups and individuals during this discovery process will affect all aspects for new workplace.

Knowledge gained from this discovery and programming process will then inform design development and lead to options promoting improved communication, productivity, and efficiency.

People often talk of a “return to normal” post-COVID. Coming out of the pandemic, though, we must acknowledge that there is no “return to normal.” The world is a changed place, giving companies many lessons from which they can adapt the workplace to take advantage of all we have learned and how people have been changed in their work preferences.

Because of this, there is no one solution that will work for all. The workplace must not only recognize these differences but also remain flexible for future changes. As history has shown, there will be other health crises, and we must stand ready to adapt our physical environments so that we come out of those crises better than when we entered them.

Scott Vieth, AIA, is Principal and Senior Project Designer with Design Collective