The unfiltered joy of working in the office with a cup of coffee by your side. Interesting discussions with coworkers, thought-provoking collaborative sessions, social interaction and handshakes, fist bumps, and hugs. It is a balanced diet of work and play for humans who are essentially social beings. Between formal meetings and informal sessions, is when we grow aware of the thrilling nature of workplaces.
Everyone’s work-life has been thrown off the rails by the coronavirus pandemic. The work from home (WFH) trend did not quite sit well with the workers. Several offices remained dormant for months together. They became static and rather dead. Online interaction is hampering the progress of many businesses.
Deteriorating work quality and creativity are a few of the immediate consequences. The experience of discussing and generating diverse ideas with colleagues that share the same purpose, vision, and sense of community remains absent in online meetings. The lack of face-to-face interaction is gradually uprooting the social nexus.
Covid-19 has certainly upended every individual’s life on this planet. The key question is, will post-pandemic workplaces remain the same and evoke the same emotions as the pre-covid workplaces? People are wanting to return to their workplace for one sole reason- to reignite and relive their social lives. Months of work-from-home basis work has exhausted their emotional and psychological batteries.
With the norms issued by multiple authorities to prevent and mitigate coronavirus, how can workplaces achieve a fine balance between ensuring physical distancing and at the same time allowing their workers to engage in social interactions? How can we tackle these seemingly conflicting criteria? This dilemma has baffled the minds of many designers. The World Health Organization has issued standard guidelines that need to be followed by workplaces with limited occupancy.
The emotional well-being of workers is as important as their physical health. Workplaces need to follow a holistic approach to ensure productivity, efficiency, engagement, and collaboration. The latest wave of workplace design has taken over many workplaces that are willing to create conducive environments for their employees. Employees need to be given a haven to make work-in-office worth the risk they’re willing to take.
Rethinking workplaces has become the new normal. There are a few attributes of workplaces that can contribute to their safe and healthy curation to survive the pandemic:
1. Physical distancing
Every individual needs to maintain a personal sphere of 2m / 6ft to prevent transmission of coronavirus. These spheres should not intersect at any point and this can only be achieved by spacing out workstations and defining circulation patterns and ingress/egress points. Workplaces cannot operate at full occupancy and hence need to adopt a hybrid of remote and in-person work.
The concept of ‘de-populate or de-densify offices’ is gaining momentum. Transparent workstation enclosures and partitions serve as effective boundaries. Creative prototypes of effective workstations and pod typologies are coming up. Many designers are torn between raising boundaries between workstations and dissolving boundaries to reduce surface contact. The most important challenge is to establish the required boundaries while still leaving some room for social interaction.
To reinforce boundaries and circulation patterns signages need to be populated within workplaces. They will serve as a reminder to the occupants to strictly adhere to the covid-19 protocols and also prevent unnecessary loitering within office spaces. They help businesses communicate with their employees. Decals, floor stickers, and emblems need to be incorporated into retail environments.
For instance, floor stickers outside elevators can help maintain order while people wait for their turn. These floor stickers call for a systematic approach and psychologically compel people to follow the rules despite being distracted in transient spaces. Incorporated signages eventually add to the brand identity and provide precise directions without aggressively calling anyone out.
Natural textures, materials, and other elements create a comfortable work environment for its users. Several workplaces are formulating green interior spaces to increase the productivity levels and efficiency of workers and help them connect with nature. Biophilic designs mitigate stress, improve cognitive function, creativity and well-being. It is a relief from overly urbanized spaces.
Living walls, plants, and water features are making their way into the retail world. Besides, they clean and filter the indoor air which is a necessity in times of coronavirus. Establishing connections between man-made and natural environments keeps the human mind balanced.
4. Furniture and finishes
Workplaces should preferably opt for open layouts so that the furniture can be moved around to suit different requirements at different points of time and reduce the touch frequency. Flexibility is one of the key factors that dictates other design decisions.
Hence, the furniture should be modular, adaptable, lightweight, kinetic, and easy to clean in nature to allow different arrangements. Finishes should be cheap and easy to clean as well. Self-cleaning surfaces can remove the bacteria from their surfaces. Using these, high-traffic public touch-points as elevator buttons, arms of chairs, and door handles become safe to use.
The most significant benefit of open floor plans would be easy natural air circulation. Good airflow reduces the concentration of coronavirus within enclosed spaces. Workplaces are replacing their HVAC systems with passive ventilation techniques or office climate control systems.
If these systems are expensive or difficult to incorporate, air sterilizers can be used. They do not pump in fresh air but certainly eliminate bacteria, viruses, and odors. Transient spaces and spaces with no windows can make use of these. Biophilic interiors further contribute to the filtration of outdoor air. Besides, fresh air improves mood and productivity, reduces stress, strengthens your immune system, and cleanses your lungs.
Technology is what is helping the entire world survive the pandemic-induced lockdown. Virtual transparency has allowed the concerned authorities to establish a common workplace ethic for everyone. Technology can play a crucial role in making workplaces safe for workers by minimizing touchpoints and preventing unnecessary wayfinding routes.
Touch-less technology can produce a considerable positive impact. Motion lights, facial recognition, and motion sensors can prevent door handle and faucet contact. Elevators and AV systems can be controlled using smartphones. An app, interface, or system that indicates the availability of conference rooms and the statuses of other elements of the workplace can ease things out for everyone and ensure transparency.
All in all, workplaces should be retrofitted to make them as fluid as possible to suit the needs of their workers. Employee safety and well-being have become a non-negotiable priority. The process of making workplaces safe is not as tedious as it sounds. Even minimal changes can produce the desired effects. One only needs to be open to fresh ideas.
What all workers need is a safe place for them to work that does not allow fearful thoughts to preoccupy their minds while they try to focus on their work quality. We all are in this together and hence we need to take care of each other for us to get back to our everyday lives.
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