Holly Samuelson thinks elevator buttons will be the first to go. Second? Perhaps bathroom door handles. “Do you really need to touch a door handle to get in and out of an office bathroom?” she asks. A Harvard Graduate School of Design professor who specializes in buildings and public health, Samuelson's been thinking about the big, and small ways, office design will change post-COVID-19. The current questions she’s asking herself (other than the ones about bathroom handles) are: “What are multiple people touching every day that we don't need to have lots of people touching? Do people have access to hand-washing conveniently? Are the surfaces easily cleanable? Are there unnecessary nooks and crannies? How is the ventilation design? Are we unnecessarily bringing sick people and healthy people close into close proximity?”
Throughout history, crises have changed the way we build. The 1942 fire at Coconut Grove nightclub in Boston, for example, resulted in the implementation of the outward swinging door and visible exit signs. The Oklahoma City Bombing led to bollards outside high-security skyscrapers. September 11th resulted in more shatterproof glass and concrete-core structures. So it’s almost certain that the COVID-19 pandemic will change architecture as we know it—especially when it comes to highly trafficked office buildings.
In fact, it’s already starting. The American Institute of Architects recently released guidelines on what, exactly, co-working spaces should do to safely reopen. Some of their suggestions? Pathways dividing directional traffic, separate exits and entrances, and queuing areas, complete with rain/sun covers, outside of front doors so people can enter one at a time. That’s all meant to make getting into work safer. Inside the office itself, they suggest plastic sneeze guards, staggered desks, touchless key-card systems, and moveable partitions to divvy up open floor plans. (If elevator buttons have to be a thing, they suggest putting easy-to-clean transparent film over them.)
One of the most important aspects that will need to change is an unseen aspect: ventilation. Typically, HVAC systems recirculate air around the floor to make sure everyone gets access to heat or air conditioning. That has a downside: “So we're taking my sneeze and we're pumping it back through the building multiple times,” Samuelson says simply. "It's not rocket science to move away from that to dedicated outdoor air systems.” A DOAS, she explains, takes outdoor air and exhausts it more quickly. Bonus: this method is also more eco-friendly.
How will these technical, functional alterations change our office vibes? Expect minimalistic, futuristic design that supports hygienic safety: surfaces will likely be straight and sleek, as they are easy to clean. Doors will be automatic. Entrances will be keyless, or even rely on biometrics like face or eye scanners. There will be hand-washing and hand-sanitizing stations everywhere. Desks with divisions (aka cubicles) will make a comeback. With most companies reducing their in-office workforce, conference rooms may now double as workspaces to help employees spread out. Sunlight (and access to windows and their airflow) will be a priority. Expect signs supporting social distance, like arrows that show the one-way walking traffic around the building.
But that doesn’t mean future offices are destined to be dystopian. Last week, architecture firm Woods Bagot put forth their own vision for a workplace. Their argument: if you are going to sit at a computer with your headphones on all day, just stay home. The only purpose for a shared space is for something that can’t be totally replaced by a Zoom call—creative collaboration. “People only travel to the office when it is necessary or preferable to collaborate physically with colleagues with buzz and energy,” they write of their model, filled with properly-distanced round tables and couches. “Imagine a workplace with no desks.”
Another of Woods Bagot’s models praised “community nodes”: instead of one big HQ, what if companies opted for smaller neighborhood offices near their employee’s homes? “With our reduced desire to use public transport and be among large groups of people, the future in this model is more distributed than consolidated. Its focus is on smaller satellite, community based, offices. The offices will be closer to people’s homes making significant impact on the ‘time’ challenges of the old working models and supporting people to ‘live and work locally’ in tribes,” they wrote. Citigroup, it’s reported, is already considering this approach, looking at real estate in suburban areas like Long Island and Westchester.
What does a post-Coronavirus office look like when put into real-life practice? In mid-May, Bloomberg got a glimpse at Facebook’s reopening plan. (The Silicon Valley giant is welcoming back 25 percent of its workforce on July 6.) Work stations, they reported, would be six feet apart. Employees may be required to wear masks in some areas, and undergo temperature checks. The cafeteria will only offer pre-packaged grab-and-go foods. In the beginning, there will be no visitors.
“I think some extreme measures are going to be temporary,” Samuelson says of some of the stricter social-distance measures offices are enacting. “But some things are not going to bounce back. We’ll just have a new normal.”