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Post-pandemic workplace will be roomier and Zoom-ready

The post-pandemic workplace will deliver roomier office spaces with better environmental conditions. They will be designed with sharing in mind for flexible scheduling.

COVID-19 is changing how offices function and in ways that may be here for good. Workspaces may be less crowded, and workers may have more space to call their own. There may be better air quality to keep germs at bay and improved lighting specifically for video conferencing.

The way people work will also change. Many employees will likely choose to work remotely at least part-time, creating a need for shared workspaces.

The post-pandemic workplace "is going to actually put a lot of pressure on companies, and in particular their HR departments, to understand what is the right ratio of people that will be back in the workplace," said Tim Bailey, an associate partner and senior architect at Margulies Perruzzi, an architectural firm in Boston.

Pre-COVID-19, some employers were trying to pack as many people as possible into an open office space. They might have allowed 125 to 150 square feet per person. But post-COVID-19, the per employee space could almost double, ranging from 200 to 250 square feet, Bailey said. "Should another pandemic arise, you have the flexibility to keep people socially distant," he said.

Worries will remain long after pandemic

Even when COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror, "a lot of people are going to be worried about any sort of sickness," Bailey said. Enhancing the health and wellness of the workplace "is going to be something that's very important," he said.

Another component of the post-pandemic workplace will be coping with video communications. "If you're in that large open office setting with 100 people, and everyone's on a Zoom call, it's going to be very distracting," Bailey said.

Video conferencing will lead to improved acoustics and lighting and even "Zoom rooms," spaces set aside for video use, he said.

Government health authorities may have already primed businesses for some of these changes. In response to the pandemic, state governments have set rules on capacity and distances between workers.

At Boston-based Building Engines Inc., no employee has an individual office. In the Boston location, "there's 100 people in one room, four walls," said Tim Curran, CEO at Building Engines, which makes building operations software. But by law, the company can't rely on its old desk layout and must meet the state's capacity and people separation guidelines, he said.

Margulies Perruzzi post-pandemic workspaces
Boston-based architectural firm Margulies Perruzzi renderings show how distancing can be achieved in an open office environment. On the left, workstations marked with an 'X' are unusable in a pandemic. But the future office state, on the right, shows a design that is usable during the pandemic and beyond.

Social distancing may have staying power

Curran expects these separation practices will continue in the post-pandemic workplace.

"That doesn't mean cubicles are out. It could mean that cubicles are bigger, they're spread out, they're in pods," he said.

This post-pandemic future is also creating opportunities for new vendor services. ServiceNow, for instance, released its Workplace Service Delivery product last week. The software is aimed at employees so that they can easily reserve desks, conference rooms and collaboration spaces -- whatever they need.

The employee experience tool gives workers some control over how they manage their office needs, said Blake McConnell, senior vice president of employee workflow products at ServiceNow. But employers can also use the tool to understand their space utilization rates, he said.

That doesn't mean cubicles are out. It could mean that cubicles are bigger, they're spread out, they're in pods.
Tim CurranCEO, Building Engines

The post-pandemic workforce shift means fewer employees will be working primarily in the office, which has "several real impacts" on workplaces, said Juliana Beauvais, an analyst at IDC.

"From a day-to-day perspective, employees need to know when they can go into the office, where they will sit and how to make sure they have what they need to support their work," Beauvais said. And employers will need to know what percentage of their floor space "will move from dedicated to reservable desks," she said.

For years, building systems focused on maintenance schedules and cost optimization, but without much consideration about the "building occupant experience," Beauvais said. ServiceNow approached it differently, beginning with the task employees perform as they relate to facility management, HR and other operations, she said.

Another area companies will likely focus on is air quality. Businesses may install ultraviolet germicidal irradiation systems in air ducts to kill germs, and revamp air handling systems to allow for more fresh air.

Some organizations may also use standalone air filtration systems. For instance, the New York City Department of Education bought 30,000 air purification units from Delos Living LLC.

The pandemic has drawn a lot of attention to some simple things, said Paul Scialla, CEO at Delos.

"What we touch matters, what we breathe matters, how we gather indoors matters, even lighting and thermal and acoustic have an impact on the human condition," Scialla said. He sees a clear trend to "enhanced health and wellness features" in office spaces as a result of the pandemic.

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