by Caitlyn Flowers
A new workplace culture is brewing worldwide, and it is centered around connectivity. In a post-COVID-19 world where physical connection is nearly nonexistent, our need for visual connectivity has increased tremendously, forcing cameras to be turned on for remote meetings. This creates the opportunity for innovation as architects, engineers and designers reconsider the way people gather in search of a better and safer way of connecting. With employees returning to office spaces, a reduction of meeting room seats maintains social distancing guidelines established by the CDC. In more informal collaboration areas, utilizing a six-foot coffee table provides a safe distance visual cue for reference throughout the space.
The need for divisions comes in many forms and will take shape in many ways. High-back dividers provide further protection in close-proximity arrangements. Not only will physical divisions be necessary, but the use of modular seating may increase, as it may be reconfigured as required to meet updates to CDC guidelines.
The time to invest in fully integrating technology is now: Video conferencing setups to include cameras, film on glare-producing glass walls and tapered tables where all faces are visible on the screen optimize meeting rooms for both in-person and distant participation. Additionally, new ways to integrate personal devices such as cell phones and laptops will allow meeting users to participate with less communal hands-on tech gear. Prior to COVID-19, VC often found circulation to be approximately 40% of the total office square footage in an open-office plan; due to distancing guidelines, this number could quickly approach and surpass 50% as a new standard. Some offices have begun to implement one-way circulation through direct visual cues such as arrows being placed on the floor. This mode of circulation is most commonly seen in health care, as it combats the further spread of disease.¹ This is wayfinding’s opportunity to shine as companies integrate aspects of health care circulation design methods into the commercial realm.
Everyone will need to unlearn what was once the typical way of gathering and adapt to a new norm. According to Dr. Jeff DeGraff, a professor at University of Michigan and author, “This is the big thing about the transition we’re going through. I’m getting so many calls these days. ‘What’s going to happen next?’ The answer is, I don’t know and neither do you…. You have to be able to deal with the ambiguity that’s part of a creative mindset.”² The fluid workforce and creativity clusters DeGraff predicts are going to take a new form as the safe distance rule generates new limitations and, also, the potential for innovation. Architects and designers alike are being pushed to reimagine the way safe collaboration, training and conference spaces are formed. For instance, adjacent conference rooms can be reconfigured to form a single, larger conference room, provided that the recommended social distancing clearance between seated individuals and those circulating throughout the space are maintained. This could be a great opportunity to “de-mount” many of the flexible partitions that have been put up in recent build outs.
The open office may be seen as a landscape of sorts; further division can be created between adjacent table configurations by playing with different table and chair heights – one table at seated height, and another at standing, for instance – providing choice while reducing direct face-to-face meetings within the variable office landscape. Providing a safe distance between each person will increase the square footage of gathering spaces. It will be up to architects and designers to determine how to accommodate this increase, avoiding an increase in the overall footprint and maintaining sustainable office environments.
While there are many options for how meeting rooms and collaboration spaces will adjust in response to the safe distance clearance necessary in gathering areas, it will be up to companies to decide which options will work best for their offices.
¹ Wilson, Mark. “Our offices will never be the same after COVID-19. Here’s what they could look like.” Fast Company, April 13, 2020. Accessed April 14, 2020. https://www.fastcompany.com/90488060/our-offices-will-never-be-the-same-after-covid-19-heres-what-they-could-look-like.
² “Post-Pandemic Offices for a Fluid Workforce.” Spark (blog), Haworth Inc., April 3, 2020. https://blog.haworth.com/content/spark/en/articles/2020/post-pandemic-offices-for-a-fluid-workforce.html.
Caitlyn Flowers is a designer at Visnick & Caulfield.