The Future of Office Design

Will Cubicles Make a Comeback?
Published 5-13-2020

At some point, we will power down our makeshift home offices and return to the workplace. What that will look like is the subject of much discussion, but many agree that office space will undergo a substantial post-pandemic redesign. Communal tables and benches might become a thing of the past, while the face shields we’ve come to see at the supermarket could take the form of plexiglass dividers between desks. It won’t be the end of collaboration, but it might be the end of the bustling, densely packed “collaboration spaces.”

Some things being considered temporarily as offices gradually reopen, may evolve into the new normal:

  • Wider corridors with one-way traffic
  • One set of fire stairs to walk up and another to walk down
  • Touchless elevator controls, doors, and trash receptacles
  • Internal video conferencing to avoid large gatherings in the conference room
  • Single- or limited-occupancy elevators
  • No more coffee bars, cafés, or fitness centers
  • Staggering start times for work, to avoid crowds in lobbies and lines for elevators

There are two schools of thought on the current trend of unassigned seating. One posits that the practice makes it harder to contain germs, as an unhealthy person could camp out in multiple places during the course of a week. Others argue that the idea might gain steam, as streamlined workstations that are not cluttered by personal belongings are easier for the custodial staff to clean.

Unassigned seating also would facilitate another change that some foresee—staggering shifts, either by time of day or day of the week, to give workers more personal space—which has been successfully deployed by construction companies trying to maintain proper distances between workers on a job site. All technology would be personal and portable: laptop, mouse, phone, laser pointer. In their “off” days, employees could continue to work from home with the same technology.

While everyone from WeWork to Penn State University is talking about “de-densifying” their spaces by removing seats or marking which seats can be used and which can’t, James Woolum, a partner at ZGF, says it may not be economically feasible to sustain the same footprint for significantly fewer occupants. In a recent article, Woolum argues in favor of designing workspaces that accomplish more with the same, if not less, rather than the other way around.

“The economic realities of the workplace market did not support this approach before COVID-19 and are even less likely to do so after the quarantine is lifted,” he writes. “The fact is that we’re going to be in recovery mode for some time, both health-wise and financially-speaking, and the idea of ‘doing less with more’ flies in the face of the realities that both people and organizations will be navigating.”

Infrastructure Modifications

Office facility infrastructure may also be upgraded with more robust systems to ensure the health and safety of the occupants. A team of experts at HGA published the following list of enhancements:

  • Change air filters to high performing HEPA, activated charcoal, or MERV 14 or greater. (Existing systems may not be able to handle additional static pressure loss from increased filtration.)
  • Add independent air circulators with high performance air filters (HEPA) to the space. Effective units will operate at 20-30 air changes per hour.
  • Increase ventilation rates to bring in a higher percentage of outside air. Reducing the amount of recirculated air will provide a lower chance of potential transfer. (Most building systems are not capable of delivering higher levels of outside air at required thermal conditions.)
  • Maintain high occupant spaces in negative pressure spaces to control the spread of an airborne virus. (It is not recommended that entire buildings be under a negative pressure as it will lead to infiltration, humidity, and other issues with the envelope.)
  • Keep HVAC systems running longer, even 24/7 if possible, as recommended by ASHRAE.
  • Keep relative humidity between 40-60 percent to help reduce the risk of infection. This can be achieved by adding either local or global humidification to units. (Building envelopes must be designed for higher internal levels to prevent condensation and mold potential.)
  • Utilize a Bipolar Ionization system. This can be retrofitted to existing building systems or spaces. Works against 99 percent of bacteria and viruses.
  • Use UVC lighting to sterilize air. (This is appropriate ONLY inside air handling units. UVC wands and other residential tools are non-regulated and may pose a safety hazard.)
  • Evaluate GUV (Germicidal Ultraviolet) disinfection lighting for surface sensitive areas of the workplace, such as fitness and food service.
  • These luminaries often have two settings, a regular level and disinfection level, although this is a supplement to cleaning, not a substitute. The cost-benefit energy implications, as well as overall effectiveness to targeted disinfection rates, need to be evaluated.
  • Sunlight has a high GUV effect and introducing access to sunlight within your workspace can result in wellness benefits as well as take advantage of the inherit properties of sunlight disinfection.
  • Evaluate the use of personal devices to control lighting and AV systems. This allows for individuals to control their environment, as well as encourages less frequent use of wall switches or public control devices.

Additionally, easy-to-clean and germ-resistant materials now used for healthcare settings may be repurposed for corporate office buildings. There may be increased interest in designing according to the WELL Building Standard™, which includes better, healthier ventilation systems. Many of the changes being discussed—hands-free technology, virtual meetings, and remote work, for example—were already trending; their adoption may simply be accelerated in the post-pandemic era.

By Lisa Wesel