September 16, 2020

Workplace design has experienced a radical transformation over the last decade. Cave-like cubicles and frightful fluorescent lighting are dead and gone—today’s office spaces embrace an organization’s vision, values and culture with a variety of spaces that encourage collaboration while offering contemporary creature comforts.

Workplace design is undergoing another transformation, unfortunately, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. As organizations begin returning to their offices, the priority will now be keeping employees safe and healthy.

I recently sat down with Gresham Smith’s Executive Vice President of Healthcare, Jim Langlois, to discuss the best practices and principles of healthcare design, which are aimed at mitigating germ spread and cross contamination. Keep reading for a recap of the cues workplace designers can take from the healthcare industry to make human decisions that elevate the comfort, health and safety of employees in post-pandemic workplaces.

Controlling Circulation

In clinical settings, circulation paths are carefully designed to reduce contact and touch points, and some areas, such as operating rooms, even have restricted access as an added infection control measure. Healthcare professionals want to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible and without touching more than necessary.

Before the pandemic, employees were encouraged to meander freely throughout the office, but we may now consider how to create more direct circulation paths. Workplace designers should also examine current circulation patterns for areas that do not allow for social distancing and make adjustments accordingly.


Selecting Santizable Surfaces

Healthcare designers are accustomed to selecting surfaces and fabrics that can be repeatedly sanitized—something workplace designers haven’t had to consider until now. Moving forward, we’ll have to incorporate durable materials within office spaces that can stand up to repeated cleaning.

Reducing Entry Points

The healthcare industry’s focus on accessibility has led to numerous entry points at facilities. When dealing with the pandemic, hospitals and other facilities have limited entry points to more quickly and efficiently screen patients before allowing them inside.

Office buildings have slowly added additional entries as well and should consider limiting access points as employees return to work. Post pandemic accessibility will be less about convenience and more about infection control.


Embracing Compartmentalization

Hospitals are separated into different zones with separate mechanical systems, which helps contain infections populations within individual departments. In the corporate real estate world, tenants may rethink how much space they lease to avoid sharing restrooms and other amenities with neighbors, creating their own standalone zone.

Rethinking Lean Processes

The healthcare industry has leaned to improve delivery systems, but possibly over-leaned; during the pandemic there has been minimal capacity to make adjustments in response to rapidly changing conditions. While workplace designers haven’t cut back to that extent, we may rethink lean processes as well—while a single set of restrooms per floor may have made sense in 2019, the configuration doesn’t offer tenants the flexibility required in 2020.

Additionally, areas that we may have previously designed for efficiency will now be designed for life safety and health. For example, a code-compliant five-foot corridor may have initially been designed to maximize space. However, it’s no longer about codes—design processes will be about occupant comfort and well-being.


Decreasing Density

In the healthcare industry, many health systems are “decanting” the medical center—that is, moving non-essential programs and services to off-site locations to reduce the number of people on hospital campuses. Similarly, may companies have reduced their office footprint in response to a more mobile workforce. Post-pandemic, we may see some organizations begin to embrace a “hub and spoke” model for their office spaces, keeping their offices in larger cities while also opening offices in smaller cities to further disperse their workforce.

From how employees enter the office building to what their desk chair is made of, the coronavirus pandemic has transformed office spaces around the world. Just as we adapted when we bid cubicles goodbye, we will adapt to this new normal too. We’ll continue creating spaces that express a company’s vision, values and culture, but we’ll also design for more than that—in this “new normal,” workplaces designers will take cues from our healthcare counterparts to create spaces that safeguard the health and well-being of the people who enjoy them.