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How Should Office Buildings Change in a Post-Pandemic World?

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended everything, including people’s trust in the places and spaces where we work. For those who design and develop office buildings around the world, this has introduced a new challenge: Once we are cleared to return to the office, how can we convince people that the buildings they use are healthy and safe?

It’s a challenge for developers, building managers, and office tenants alike. Some say our fundamental outlook on life and our comfort level in public places will never be quite the same as it was before COVID-19.

To plan for a totally new reality, our design response will likely parallel what we’re seeing in the public health community. In the immediate term we’ll enter a “bridge” phase until more becomes known about the virus. For example, if guidance on physical distancing changes from six feet to some other dimension, our work environments will need to adapt.

Meanwhile, we need to understand what’s important to people in a post-pandemic world so we can plan for the “bridge” phase.

It’s about personal well-being

For starters, we can expect a new level of focus on personal health and wellness. No doubt the coronavirus has raised everyone’s level of awareness about the potential for their surroundings to serve as breeding grounds for communicable viruses or disease.

The good news is that smart design can decrease the rate of sickness, alleviate symptoms of illness, and improve mental functions, outlook, and mood.

But we can’t just tell people that a building has been redesigned to confront the health crisis. It’s not enough to say it’s safe to return to work without some way to back up that claim. We have to show people.

One way would be to document a building’s healthy status by meeting an agreed-upon industry standard. It could be through an existing initiative like the WELL Building Standard®, a performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring building features that impact human health and well-being. The standard scores buildings using factors such as air, water, nourishment, light, and comfort. A guideline like this, or another alternative, will give building users more confidence in the interior environment.

Short-term solutions

Of course, documenting building performance and completing the review process can be time-consuming. What can building owners and managers do in the short term?

1. Rethink meeting spaces

An immediate solution is to rethink how people congregate in office space. Huddling in a small conference room with poor ventilation will not feel good to people anymore. As people gravitate back to the office, we will be more likely to use our conference rooms with half of the people it can accommodate. Others can join meetings virtually.

2. Implement building-wide cleaning protocols

Given all the instruction circulating about hand sanitizers, hand washing, and wiping down hard surfaces with disinfectant wipes, people will want to know what kind of protocols building managers and their employers are putting into place to keep office buildings safe. Even prior to the coronavirus spread, Gensler’s research discovered that a key concern raised by dynamic workers was the cleanliness of shared workstations. Now the ante has been raised. In response, organizations should implement professional cleaning and sanitizing protocols for workstations, conference rooms, reception desks, and social/common areas at regular intervals throughout the day. Building owners will need to be able to work to an objective, third-party standard so there is a comfort with the protocol being followed.

3. Focus on indoor air quality

Technology can be invaluable in the effort to instill trust in our buildings. With immediate retrofits to existing buildings, we can take measures that help filter and destroy bacteria and viruses from our indoor environments. Among other actions mechanical engineers recommend, adding UV lights to air handlers can help purify air and contribute to a safe and healthy indoor environment.

4. Update and display safety measures regularly

To show building occupants that they’re taking health and safety seriously, developers can implement immediate steps to measure indoor air quality or environmental cleanliness at various points in their buildings, and then communicate that information to their tenants. Displays can be installed in building lobbies or at other interface points, such as in elevators. The information could also be pushed out through an app that tenants download to their phones. Perhaps in the future, indoor environments will have a wellness grade similar to how restaurants in some states display cleanliness grades or health inspections.

Long-term solutions

At some point, we will move past the “bridge” phase and into a new normal. While none of us can predict the future, it seems reasonable to expect that there will be a continued focus on health and wellness, and this could inform solutions that might require more extensive retrofits or design solutions.

1. Rethink air-filtration systems

Operable windows, such as those we used at The Tower at PNC Plaza could make a resurgence as building owners look to redesign air-filtration systems and bring more fresh air into spaces. The advantage to operable windows is that they not only bring in fresh air and dilute the airborne contaminants that pass from person to person, but they give occupants a feeling of greater control over the office environment.

2. Add outdoor space

As designers, we’ve already been looking for ways to improve connectivity between people in the workplace. In particular, by adding roof decks and outdoor terraces, we’ve found a way to give workers a seamless indoor-outdoor connection that they enjoy. Now there’s an added incentive for building owners to create these spaces in new buildings or on renovated rooftops, because they provide work areas with fresh air and can allow for social distancing.

3. Implement biophilic design elements

Another way to make the office environment healthier is to bring plant life indoors. This can be part of a broader effort toward adding elements of nature to the workplace, known as biophilia. Proponents of this approach maintain that design interventions that incorporate nature or mimic natural systems are linked to decreased stress, enhanced creativity, and accelerated recovery from illness. In the workplace, it can also lead to financial benefits such as a reduction in use of sick days.

4. Rethink floor plans

We can also rethink floor plans to provide room for people to provide a more hygienic environment. While many companies are considering ways to de-densify their offices in the short term, there may be more permanent ways to achieve this goal by altering building forms.

One obvious area is to reexamine shared facilities, like toilet rooms, which many employees use through the course of a day. They can be designed with door-free entrances similar to airport restrooms – a strategy that greatly reduces the need to touch foreign surfaces, like door handles, which could transmit bacteria or viruses. Similarly, doors can be designed with a foot-contact point, or they can be fitted with automated or voice-activated technology that allows them to be opened with the wave of a hand or a voice command.

Ultimately, one thing we’ve learned from the isolation we’ve experienced as a result of the pandemic is the degree to which humans are social animals. We value human connection, and we want to join our colleagues at work again.

Common-sense solutions that we can modify as we learn more during the “bridge” phase of this pandemic will help us get back to work. And lessons we learn from this experience will help us design environments that promote health and wellness as values that are ingrained in our design. We can use this opportunity — and we can start today — to design and build a better world for tomorrow.

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Ben Tranel
Ben is an architect focused on the transformational power of design, specifically how the built environment communicates values and shapes human experiences. As Managing Director of Gensler’s San Francisco office, he enjoys complex design challenges and guiding teams to discover creative solutions. Contact him at .