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Office Space Planning For The "New Normal"

Office Space Planning For The

As more people return to the workplace after working from home, it raises a number of questions for owners, facility managers, and employees alike. Workers want to know if their buildings are going to make them ill. Owners want to know if they can keep their businesses open without having to worry about shutting down due to an outbreak. Facility managers want to know how to allay everyone's fears.

COVID-19 has forced us to reimagine what a workspace looks like. For many people, wearing masks and staying at least six feet away from others has become second nature. How is this "new normal" going to impact office space planning?

1. Reduced capacity.

Before the novel coronavirus, offices were planned for efficiency. Now, health is the number one priority. Following the CDC and WHO recommendations that people stay six feet away from each other, modern office spaces will shift to accommodate. Rooms will, by necessity, become lower capacity as facility managers move desks and conference seating to allow for space.

2. Changes in traffic flow.

Part of maintaining space between employees involves changing the way they navigate office spaces. If two people are walking toward each other, there comes a point where it's impossible to maintain a safe amount of distance.

In addition to changes in policy, this is going to lead to a shift in office layout. Avoiding sickness relies heavily on employee behaviors, but office planning can help change those behaviors. Some layouts make it easier to reinforce one-way navigation, and more and more offices are going to adopt them.

3. Changes in meeting spaces.

In the past, it was common practice for employees to hold meetings in their offices. Now, that may not be safe or comfortable for everyone involved -- offices are enclosed spaces, and disinfecting between meetings can create disruptive pauses in the middle of the workday. In the future, we're likely to see a new type of common room emerge: a room furnished with easy-to-sanitize materials and treated as an auxiliary office space just for holding meetings. These rooms could be thoroughly cleaned between uses, allowing employees the disruption-free space and atmosphere they need, while keeping everyone safe.

4. Touchless environments.

Washing your hands frequently, wearing gloves, using hand sanitizer, and not touching your face help keep you from contracting the novel coronavirus, but touchless environments are even better. They keep employees from coming into contact with each other's pathogens in the first place, so proper hygiene becomes added insurance against infection.

Increases in the automation of everything from doors to bathrooms, to HVAC systems help reduce the number of touchpoints in an office, thereby reducing the chance of a COVID-19 outbreak. In the near future, modern office buildings will be designed with minimal contact in mind, including the integration of app-based technologies to allow employees to enter, exit, adjust the lighting, open the blinds, and everything we currently rely on touch-based controls to do.

5. More flexible spaces.

Research has shown that fresh air and sunlight make it more difficult to contract COVID-19, and sealed-up buildings can develop sick building syndrome at the best of times. Modern office plans are probably going to become more of a compromise between the two -- offering increased fresh air and light, and flexible indoor-outdoor spaces for employees to work.

Before this, building design largely emphasized energy efficiency. This shift represents a compromise between saving energy and being healthy and more appealing. Fresh air spaces don't just reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission, they can entice remote workers to spend time at the office. This is important for maintaining a solid company culture; even employees who spend 90% of their time working from home benefit from a shared space for collaboration.

6. New furniture.

Studies show that the novel coronavirus is capable of surviving on certain surfaces, like glass and some metals, for up to 5 days. While surfaces aren't considered as important as airborne droplets in terms of transmitting the disease, choosing furnishings that are inhospitable to viruses and easy to clean is still important for maintaining a safe, healthy building. Materials like copper and aluminum, two of the least hospitable to SARS-CoV-2, are likely to become more popular in the future. We may also see the emergence of office furniture treated with continuously active antiviral coatings. While these coatings are still in the experimental stage, they have shown virus-inhibiting activity for 90 days at a time. That makes them a valuable addition to modern office furniture, doors, elevators, and other furnishings.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, has changed everything about the way we live and work. Even with a vaccine and improved treatment for this disease, it's going to be with us for a while. By adjusting office planning and culture to accommodate social distancing and employee safety, facility managers can ensure that workers stay safe, and businesses stay open.

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