Deryl McKissack heads McKissack & McKissack, an architecture, engineering and construction management firm with $15B in projects nationwide.
As we go back to work in the office, the most critical question for businesses, real estate owners and property managers is how we will rework office space. As president and CEO of an architecture, engineering and construction management firm, I and my team have been dealing with this issue in our own offices — as well as clients’ offices — around the country.
We’ve seen businesses removing chairs and moving desks to reduce Covid-19 spread as they reopen. However, workplace health requires much more than rearranging furniture. Here are 11 ways to revamp offices to support healthy workplaces.
1. Clear the air with mechanical upgrades. The easiest and most obvious way to combat pathogens is to bring outside air in whenever possible by opening windows and adjusting outdoor air dampers. One research paper shows a higher ratio of fresh air can help lower virus transmission by diluting any contaminants. Another tactic is to treat recirculating air with filters that have a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) rating of 13 or higher to trap airborne viruses. For many buildings, this means upgrading filters. You can also adjust an office’s humidity level to around 50%, which may help limit the growth of the virus while boosting workers’ infection resiliency.
2. Look outside for building health. Many of the systems that make commercial structures more energy efficient, from louvered windows to heat recovery systems, also allow commercial structures to circulate more fresh air year-round. Architects and engineers must take a holistic look at how ventilation and window systems affect indoor air quality to improve workplace health. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers established a task force to offer guidance so buildings are prepared for future epidemics.
3. Engage the finance team. Real estate costs will always be a consideration in redesigning commercial buildings post-Covid-19. Spacing fewer workers throughout a building will help limit the spread of infection, but at a cost. There are only so many places to put them, and renting more space will raise the cost of doing business. Architects and commercial interior designers should partner with business owners and property managers to assess how many people a building or office can or should accommodate.
4. Rethink telecommuting. Covid-19 has shown companies they can still operate with remote technology. In a workplace pulse survey, PwC concludes if people can work from anywhere, their needs in office spaces are systems for better collaboration and communication. At my company, the pandemic has taught us that the office of the future will be a blend of remote and in-office personnel, especially as we determine how many people a building can safely accommodate.
5. Choose office space wisely. Commercial interior design configurations depend on a building’s size and function. For example, if you’re considering buildings to upgrade — one a 175,000-square-foot vacant building and the other an occupied 85,000-square-foot structure — both could use a mechanical system upgrade for a post-Covid-19 environment. But the vacant building presents more options. It’s ready for a deeper makeover, while the continuous operation of the other building will limit the scope of improvements.
6. Embrace flexible spaces. A healthy workplace strikes a balance between bringing people together to collaborate and maintaining a safe personal space. Covid-19 doesn’t change the workstation as much as the space around it — aisles might expand from four or five feet wide to six feet or more. With more people taking split schedules and telecommuting, open office design will need to accommodate project meetings and company-wide gatherings. This includes overflow capacity for people who check in at the office only occasionally. Architects and commercial interior designers should consider including commercial interior designs with reconfigurable rooms, overflow areas and shared resources in proposals.
7. Install hands-off systems. Touch-free systems can help keep workers safe and make them feel more protected. Workers can use smartphones and key fobs to open doors and control lighting. Touchless restroom fixtures are cost-effective — saving water and energy — and now can help workplace health. Automated controls will leave fewer details to set manually. In the future, we might see LiFi LED lamps transferring data or charging cellphones in cubicles. In the boardroom, we might see haptic technology helping presenters to control monitors with intuitive hand gestures.
8. Make hygienic décor choices. Covid-19 shows the wisdom of using hard, durable surfaces for frequent cleaning and sanitizing when needed. Vinyl, laminate or wood flooring can be easily mopped or vacuumed, while carpeting traps dirt and requires extra maintenance. Fabrics don’t need to disappear from the office, but they should be more durable to withstand repeated cleaning. Antimicrobial fabrics are an option to help block microbes but have so far proven ineffective for controlling infection.
9. Improve focus with furnishings. Working from home has made many teams more productive, inventive and creative. McKinsey surveyed remote workers during the coronavirus lockdowns finding 41% of those surveyed felt more productive than before. The reasons aren’t well understood, but many off-site workers were forced to rethink old processes, avoid multitasking and focus more intently. Commercial interior designers can encourage better focus in the office with adjustable tables and other furnishings that reduce distractions.
10. Put daylight between workers and workspace. The sun’s ultraviolet rays have long been shown to kill bacteria, and early signs suggest they may be one of a few components that help weaken the coronavirus on surfaces. Windows, skylights and other features that harvest natural light also help improve the energy efficiency of a building, reducing the need for lighting fixtures. Courtyards and rooftop decks can bring ambient light into all types of commercial buildings, including factories and warehouses. They can also provide healthy spaces for break periods.
11. Clear the clutter. Habits and culture will change as workplaces come to grips with the added cleaning that will be necessary. Break rooms and other shared spaces can operate in a more organized manner. Deskside storage systems can make it easier for employees to clean their workstations during the day. Teams can collaborate on decluttering — sharing experience and creating aha moments in their new surroundings.
As more studies are conducted on Covid-19, specific recommendations to ensure employee health will likely be updated. Working with recommendations and information available now, you have options when it comes to improving workplace health.