Betsy Vohs completely remodeled the offices of her Minneapolis design firm two years ago, embracing the latest trends aimed at promoting collaboration, including open bench seating for her employees and a variety of comfy informal meeting spaces.
The coronavirus pandemic has sent Vohs back to the drawing board. Now, social distancing is remaking the spaces where the world works.
“My office does not work for COVID, that’s for sure,” Vohs said. “… We can’t come back as a group. We can’t work in the office. We are too close together.”
Companies throughout the Twin Cities and around the country are rushing to readjust their office designs as they prepare to reopen workplaces as efforts to rein in a deadly virus show early progress but no sure solutions.
Making yesterday’s office work in today’s grim reality will be easier for employers with flexible floor plans with adequate space per employee and for those able to draw on a renewed enthusiasm for remote working arrangements. Others face a bigger challenge.
“If a company has just gone through a renovation recently in the last few years and they have densified, they will have more work to do,” said Mike Ohmes, managing principal of the Twin Cities office of commercial real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield.
Vohs’ Studio BV is among those facing a steeper path back to business as usual.
“There’s just no sharing,” said Vohs, whose firm has been creating new workplace design strategies and layouts for clients with the input of epidemiologists and guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “That’s something that we promoted so much, and it’s really pivoting.”
Workplace strategists and designers are putting aside past concerns about branding and flashy office amenities to focus on employee safety with cleaning protocols, traffic control and social distancing overhauls.
Over the past decade, the average space per employee has decreased nearly 10%, to less than 193 square feet, according to Cushman & Wakefield.
Cushman & Wakefield is working with tenants on limiting building access, preparing cleaning protocols for lobbies and how to enforce social distancing practices on elevators and escalators and more.
Probably the biggest office design change most companies will want to adopt is keeping personal desks and workstations a minimum of 6 feet apart, which has become the standard directive of social distancing policies to limit virus transmission.
As part of a $5 million project to buy and renovate its own office building in north Minneapolis, Big Brothers Big Sisters Twin Cities selected the Gensler architecture firm to design community space along with collaborative work areas. The pandemic hasn’t upended the nonprofit’s plans to move into the building in the fall, but it is decreasing the number of desks and reorienting some of the more collaborative desks to individual work areas. It increased the amount of alternate work areas to allow for more choices when people decide to be in the office, but the organization will still have a dedicated space for all employees.
“We are trying to retain as much flexibility as we can,” said Natalie Obee, vice president of finance and operations for Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Gensler has created a new physical distancing tool called ReRun that generates office occupancy plans using clients’ existing layouts and social distancing recommendations. The firm’s Midwest workplace strategy lead Cindy Coleman said companies have consulted with Gensler to phase their employees into the workplace with some planning to stagger employees on different days or shifts.
“I think in the short-term the idea would be to give people more space around them,” she said.
Another key office design change is that people will be expected to work in one particular area or desk instead of being mobile within an office.
“If you are a nomad, choose a spot for the day and stay there,” said Natasha Fonville, brand manager for Minneapolis-based Atmosphere Commercial Interiors.
About half of Atmosphere’s 100 employees in its Minneapolis office don’t have designated desks and choose where they work in the office, a practice that will be put on pause, at least temporarily.
Atmosphere has used its own office as a worklab to test furniture positions that it can recommend to office clients. Besides reorienting desks so that people face away from each other, Atmosphere has also been taking away group seating throughout the space including in conference rooms to discourage people to huddle together.
“We are arranging the space to help people make better decisions,” Fonville said.
In addition, Atmosphere has recommended creating barriers between people either with screens that can be moved around or more, less obvious, using storage units or even live plants. Atmosphere plans to begin to phase some of its own employees to work back in the office this week.
For many companies, common areas like bathrooms, break areas and lounges have emerged as most dangerous places for cross-contamination.
“It’s the common spaces that cause me the most concern,” said Shareen Luze, senior director of human resources for RBC Wealth Management U.S., which has its headquarters in downtown Minneapolis.
RBC is not only planning how to safely get more of its workers back in its current offices at RBC Plaza, but also is designing its new offices in the nearby RBC Gateway tower, currently under construction and scheduled to open in 2022.
RBC is considering how to limit the number of employees in elevators, restrooms, and break rooms, Luze said. At the same time, RBC is planning its new space at the RBC Gateway tower that company leaders say they feel confident will be able to adapt to future health standards.
“We have all of these work areas where we can space people out,” said Tammy Buchert, RBC's head of business administration. “We have a lot more flexibility in the building in a crisis and not in a crisis.”
Another tool to mitigate the virus spread will be displaying routes which will push employees to travel in certain directions throughout an office, similar to what some grocery stores have done for high traffic shopping aisles, design experts say.
Designers caution that the current crisis may not mean the complete end of some pre-COVID open office design trends.
“I just really believe that the office is somewhere you want to be and collaborate with co-workers,” Fonville said. “I think there is a fine line between safety and the relationships you build.”
Designers speculate the pandemic will likely push clients to select more easily cleanable materials for furniture and further spur changes in main offices that can accommodate for more remote working.
Similar to how the terrorist attacks of 9/11 forever changed the screening process for when people travel through airports, the coronavirus pandemic will likely have a similar lasting effect on office design, said Coleman, of Gensler.
“I think we will all be more cognizant of how densely packed we are,” Coleman said. “And, how clean.”