This article was originally published on Forbes
Over the last few months, most of us have been so focused on achieving productivity — or at least maintaining operations — remotely that it may be tempting to avoid thinking how centralized operations will need to change when we finally reconvene. The thought of returning to the office prompts a sigh of relief. Finally, we think, we can get back to normal life.
But that’s not exactly the case. Even after formal social distancing measures relax and we dust off our in-office desks, pandemic fears and risks will persist.
In mid-June, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci told The Telegraph that while a “return to normal” could happen within a year, the transition wouldn’t occur at the flip of a switch. This cautioning is well timed, as all 50 states have begun to reopen in some capacity for the first time since the coronavirus thrust the country into lockdown in March.
Economic health may be a top priority for business leaders, but we also need to protect workers and consumers. According to a new Citrix poll, employees who work in close proximity to others have emphasized their interest in stronger employee health measures. Those include “employee temperature checks, regular and documented deep cleanings, floor markings to maintain social distancing, staggered work shifts or appropriately spaced work areas, no face to face meetings and closed cafeterias.”
These feelings are so strong that more than 75% of workers in one survey said they will continue to work from home permanently until changes are solidified, or go into the office only for specific purposes. Five percent report they’ll find a new job that allows for constant remote work.
But what if we could see this transitional time as a challenge and an opportunity — a chance to rise to the occasion and create spaces that are sanitary and sustainable in the long term? One way that we can curb the hazards of the virus and protect public health at work is to rethink the way we approach the design and use of our office spaces.
Sanitary + Sustainable = Safer Workplaces
Redesigning offices to include sanitary features is a given, and it’s already a massive undertaking for landlords in my hometown of New York City. However, it also presents an opportunity for purposeful investment within the real estate field.
One real estate CEO recently told The Real Deal, “We think tenants will be more inclined to move or add space as they won’t want employees to be so densely populated. They will begin rethinking their space, so it’s an opportune time to do [these prebuilts].” The company has begun to look at a total reimagining of space, even going so far as to tweak plans on a $24 million Manhattan project to include antimicrobial materials and distancing-minded features.
These efforts, among others, offer the first indications that a “sanitary redesign” could mean the death of the open office plan. For now, the redesign means no more elbow-to-elbow seating, cafes or shared desks (a concept in business known as “hoteling”). Steel and iron features will be replaced with more sustainable materials such as copper, which is less hospitable to germs; ventilation systems will be reconfigured to flow air downward from the ceiling rather than from the floor up.
Post-pandemic makeovers also include building hand sanitizers into desks and enclosing workers within translucent partitions that look, more than anything, like the cubicles of old. We’ll also see desks spaced farther apart and color coding on the floor to provide a safe six-feet buffer for every employee, regardless of whether they’re sitting at their desk, walking to the restroom or even having a casual conversation in between tasks.
The newfound openness of spaces will become especially notable once work-from-home and social-distancing policies become more ingrained into company cultures. Some organizations are expected to cap in-office staff at 30% to maintain social distancing.
These are massive changes that give us a real opportunity to consider what we can do to improve the health, happiness and productivity of returning workers — and that’s where sustainably minded environmental design comes into play.
The Productivity Sustainability And Eco-Friendly Office Design
The pandemic allows business leaders and commercial real estate professionals alike a new chance to discuss environmental priorities in the context of public health.
Past research has demonstrated that where you have green office spaces, you have healthier, happier and more productive workers. In two retrospective–prospective case studies published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2010, researchers reported “improved IEQ [indoor environmental air quality] contributed to reductions in perceived absenteeism and work hours affected by asthma, respiratory allergies, depression, and stress and to self-reported improvements in productivity.”
There’s a bevy of research to support the idea that sustainable design boosts productivity. According to JLL, green workplaces improve productivity by up to 16% — and the productivity benefits don’t stop there. Different sustainable office features increase productivity by the following percentages:
• Improved acoustics: 6%.
• Improved view, lighting and daylight: 5.5%.
• Improved thermal comfort/ventilation: 5%.
• Improved ergonomics and privacy: 6%.
We need to think of offices as environments first. We need to consider how to keep them clean, but also how to keep them welcoming and productive. Office life is going to be a whole new world from here on out, so let’s make sure that the environments we offer are clean, healthy and supportive.