COVID-19’s Effect on the Workplace

Although the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will not be understood for some time, the workplace as we know it will certainly change.  We must strategize new ways to learn and grow from what we are experiencing in order to make the workplace as safe and healthy as possible for all. Employers are now faced with new objectives including reducing transmission of viruses and minimizing illness among employees, clients, and partners. They must also maintain essential operations and services, develop infectious disease response plans, and communicate with employees about workplace flexibilities.  What is the new work paradigm when we return to the office?  Strategies may include basic prevention measures, infrastructure, and new models for imagining space use.

Basic Prevention Measures

Enhanced cleaning protocols: Employers and building owners will need to boost existing professional cleaning protocols, not only for common locations like conference rooms, cafes, and reception areas but also personal workstations, collaboration zones, and corridors. High-traffic zones such as elevators and queuing areas and high-touch surfaces such as door pulls, stair rails, elevator call buttons, card readers and switches/switch plates will need cleaning at regular intervals throughout the day. Employers should provide disinfectant wipes throughout the office, especially in shared areas.  Offices may need to create policies for workers at assigned desks to store or remove personal items to allow for proper cleaning of surfaces.

Personal hygiene/respiratory etiquette: Employers should provide cleaning supplies such as hand soap, hand sanitizer, paper towels, tissues and anti-viral cleaning products and keep them stocked.  Hand sanitizer dispensers should be touchless and provided in conference rooms, lobbies, other common areas and open office zones.  Touchless garbage and recycling receptacles are preferred. Employees should not share technology and accessories (mouse, keyboard, headsets); where sharing is unavoidable, such as conference room equipment, all items should be disinfected between uses. Employers should also provide appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as needed for workers to do their jobs as safely as possible. Sick employees should not come to work, and protocols allowing them to work from home should be transparent and welcome.

Infrastructure

Vertical circulation: Employers and building owners should sanitize elevators and other circulation spaces before and after daily surge hours (morning, lunch, evening).  Phone apps that act as badges for security access may allow for pre-programmed elevator destinations to minimize touch points and make cleaning easier. Where feasible, adding elevators above the code requirement will allow for less dense travel and possibly reduce down-time for a full deep clean during office hours. New construction projects should also consider more advanced elevator systems that can be programmed to limit the number of passengers per cab. Designers should specify hard, nonporous surfaces for easy cleaning; refer to materials notes below. Additional choices for vertical circulation (stairs, escalators, etc.) should also be considered, providing options for tenants allowing people to spread out.

HVAC: Improving indoor air quality through better ventilation and high performance equipment can promote wellness and minimize opportunities for transmission. Strategies include introducing more outdoor air to dilute contaminants, working with MEP consultants to design systems for a higher level of filtration (such as MERV 13 or 16 filters which can be implemented as needed), and state-of-the-art air purification and sanitization systems. These systems continuously disinfect, improving air quality by reducing airborne and surface contaminants like viruses, bacteria, germs, and allergens. Increasing air flow in enclosed spaces such as restrooms is particularly important.  UV light filtration within the ductwork is effective, but less prevalent due to cost implications.  UV germicidal lights may be more beneficial in the plenum or as an upward light in the space to ‘cleanse’ the air before it re-enters the system. Studies show that humidity of 40-60% can reduce the spread of viruses, but COVID-19 seems unaffected.  However, 40-60% humidity does improve a person’s immune system and the body’s natural infection protections. The way air is delivered and removed from a space could have an impact.  The virus particles tend to go up and gather in clouds.  Typical methods push new air in from the ceiling which would spread the virus particles throughout the space.  Using air displacement delivery methods (such as new air through a raised access floor system) would blow new air in at the user level and remove the contaminated air at the ceiling level.

Electrical: Lighting products with innovative technology can help designers match application and aesthetics with state-of-the-art infection control. Some types of LED lighting provide standard illumination with the added benefit of disinfection.

Technology/automation: Integrating touchless controls such as voice activated controls and occupancy sensors can reduce exposure to germs for high-touch surfaces such as doors, directories, sunshades, and lighting.  For companies who choose to establish screening protocols, Infrared Fever Screening Systems (IFSS) can detect skin temperature differences of .2 degree and can be used in a lobby setting. Automated cleaning appliances such as robotic vacuums can improve everyday air quality while allowing cleaning crews to focus on sanitizing high touch areas. Other technology includes UV light-emitting robots that can continuously sanitize surfaces.  Sensors such as those used in healthcare facilities could translate to the workplace to alert building owners when a deep clean might be needed or transmit air/water quality data back to the facilities team. Manual cleaning will still be required, but these tools can set a better baseline for cleanliness.

Restrooms and breakrooms: Restrooms and breakrooms should be fully stocked with hand soap, disinfectants and disposable towels.  Automatic/touchless fixtures and accessories such as toilets, soap dispensers, faucets, paper towel dispensers and/or hand dryers, and no-touch trash dispensers will help minimize risks. Alternative restroom hardware (such as foot or elbow pull), alternate entry sequences, or automated door openers will minimize touch points. In break rooms, appliances should be spread out to avoid congestion. Employers may consider providing local refrigerators in workstation zones to minimize cross-contamination and reduce gathering spaces. For both restrooms and break rooms, designers should specify non-porous surfaces for easy cleaning and should avoid natural stone. Increasing the number of sinks will make hand washing easier and reduce congestion points.

Materials:  Designers should specify antimicrobial coatings where possible; those with silver ion, copper or zinc have demonstrated effective antimicrobial properties as well. High touch points include door hardware, light switches/switch plates, quartz countertops, paint, textiles/upholstery, laminates, and ceramic tile; many antimicrobial products are already in use for these elements for the healthcare and food service industries and are very easy to maintain.

New Models for Space Use

Furniture and layout:  Employers may need to reorient, stagger, or retrofit desks and worksurfaces so individuals do not directly face each other. Virtual collaboration will likely increase, even for people physically in the same office; conference rooms may need to be reconfigured to increase personal space and support social distancing protocols. Additionally, employers may consider adding more outdoor common areas to maximize space and encourage employees to go outside for sun and fresh air, both of which boost our immune systems.

Circulation: Employers may need to create new circulation paths for safer traffic flows. Changes in circulation patterns will require visual reminders in the form of signage, experiential graphics, floor patterns, and other visual cues to educate employees and build new habits.

Benching systems: Benching systems can help teams maintain social distancing while providing safer work environments.  Solutions include using every other desk, adding screens to spines and between desks, and providing full standing-height personal carrels. In offices with assigned seating, desks have been proven to be dirtier than many toilets because cleaning crews are typically instructed not to touch anything on a person’s desk. In unassigned/hoteling environments, employers will need to implement a “clean desk” policy so that desks may be disinfected every night.

Flexible workforce: The success of remote work options, coupled with the need to reduce the number of people in the office at one time, may lead to scheduling innovations and greater flexibility. Companies may explore staggered shifts, A-Days and B-Days, and other options to allow a blend of physical distance and a full work week with safer options for all employees.

Our workplaces will need to evolve to provide safer environments, and we will need to develop new habits and tools. However, these challenges may also lead to innovations which will make our workplaces healthier, more productive, and more enjoyable in the long term. Many new strategies and processes will be feasible in renovations and retrofits; for workplaces yet to be built, these strategies can be implemented early in the design phase to be seamless and cost-effective.

The interventions required in the early phases of a gradual return to the office will give way to long-term strategies that continue to impact workplace design and processes long after the COVID-19 crisis. Our goal is to help companies design and prepare for continuously evolving workplaces with flexible, adaptable, thoughtfully considered spaces which will  accommodate up-to-the-minute best practices and changing needs over time.

About the Contributors

Kelly Wagner, LEED AP

As a member of LS3P’s Interior Architecture Studio, Senior Associate Kelly Wagner is responsible for interpreting designs with technical drawings and exhibits for commercial, investment office, educational, and federal projects. Since joining LS3P, Kelly has served in several roles and maximized each opportunity to gain a wide breadth of experience, always implementing her core strengths of creativity, organization of details, and knowledge of products and materials.

Kelly has an innate gift for color and style, garnering a reputation for interpreting and implementing client brands. She possesses a calm demeanor and graciousness. Coupled with her extensive knowledge and skill, these qualities make her a trusted advisor to staff and clients alike.

William Drennan, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, CDT

Associate Principal William Drennan heads the Charlotte Interior Architecture Studio. His 16 years of experience in design, production management, contract documentation and construction administration culminate in a comprehensive knowledge of design principles, practices, and aesthetics. He has served as project manager and lead designer for commercial offices, urban master planning, mixed-use development, hospitality, K-12, law offices and judicial centers. For collaborative projects combining architecture with interior architecture, Wil serves as the liaison between the Interior Architecture Studio and the Architecture Design Studio. For standalone interiors projects, he coordinates design and drawing production/review among engineers, owners, and reviewing agencies.

Wil earned both a Bachelor of Science in Design and a Master of Architecture from Clemson University. His personable demeanor and jovial disposition build an esprit de corps across the entire project team, and he is a strong advocate of sharing “lessons learned” to inform his clients and to illustrate aspects of design considerations.

Ariel Cohn, AIA, NCARB, CDT

Senior Associate Ariel Cohn began her professional career at LS3P after earning both a Master of Architecture from UNC-Charlotte and a Bachelor of Science in Interior Design from Appalachian State University. Her roles in the Interiors Studio cross many market sectors and client types including corporate, investment commercial, multi-family housing, faith-based, educational, and wellness/fitness facilities. A dedicated worker and great multi-tasker with a versatile skill set and positive attitude, Ariel has a keen eye for detail which is evident in her architectural modeling. She uses Revit software to capture and analyze design concepts, and accurately maintain coordinated design data throughout documentation and construction.

Ariel brings enthusiasm and motivation to the Interior’s team; she is a registered architect as of 2017 and obtained her contractor’s license to expand her industry experience and knowledge of the practice.

Kyle Emme, NCIDQ, LEED GA, CDT

Associate Kyle Emme is an integral part of the interiors team, lending his close attention to detail, wealth of creativity, and energy to all his projects. Following a complex task with minimal direction is one of Kyle’s many gifts. Kyle is a self-starter and a team player. His strong interpersonal communication skills allow him to communicate effectively with colleagues, clients, and contractors.

Kyle earned a Master of Interior Architecture and Product Design from Kansas State University; his design ethos seeks to understand occupant needs without forgetting occupant delight, molding environments that balance the everyday with the extraordinary.

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