The pandemic is forcing designers to rethink what the office of the future should look like post-pandemic. Is office life as we know it dead? Experts weigh in on what the future looks like. (Image credit: Photo/Carolyn Kaster)


Many things have changed thanks to the global pandemic, including the way we work. Working remotely or from home is part of the new norm. Recently, companies have encouraged people to get back to the office, yet many still aren't comfortable enough to put themselves at risk. Plexiglass dividers, social distancing markers, and hand sanitizing stations can only go so far. How do densely packed office buildings combat against virus' in the long run? This is a challenge many designers are facing, and there are different thoughts about what office life will look like in the future.


For the past ten years, offices have adapted the open floor plan as a way to encourage collaboration, bring in more light in the workplace, and increase employee interaction. But does the pandemic mean the end of shared workplaces? Experts don't necessarily think so. With the spread of COVID-19, it's tempting to rush back to the grey cubicles and high partitions of the 1970s, but it wouldn't take long for old arguments against this design to re-emerge. Cubicles are depressing, too isolating, and make the workplace drab. Instead, experts think designers need to focus on rearranging desks, putting more space between people. Others say offices need to focus on air quality.


Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, director of the Institute for Health in the Built Environment, says office buildings need to focus on improving air quality. One way to do this is better air filtration systems. Traditional systems have fans that push filtered air into a room using large overhead ducts. The problem is the warm air we exhale rises and collects at the top of the room, meaning the filtered air has to fight through the old air. Instead, Van Den Wymelenberg believes a better solution is displacement ventilation, an advanced system that uses vents at the top of the room to pull out the exhaled air while the filtered air is delivered in vents placed on the floor. Though it's more complex to set up, it has the potential to lower the amount of viral material floating in shared air.


Another solution is changing window designs. Office buildings, especially high rises, are designed with windows that can't be opened. This is to cut back on energy costs, but now experts are looking for ways to incorporate more outdoor ventilation to prevent the spread of the virus. Van Den Wymelenberg suggests a new window design currently on the market in Europe. This design has a mechanical heat-exchange system built inside the sill. This way, outside air can be warmed or cooled as it enters the building. Regardless of the design, there needs to be a way to override the system. You don't want outside air automatically pumped into a building when air quality is poor, as we're currently seeing in Western regions.


Other experts think the answer lies in reducing the number of shared touchpoints. Reena Agarwal, chief operating officer at the Center for Active Design, notes that many offices have already installed touchless switches that allow doors to open by waving at a sensor instead of touching a door handle. Doorless bathroom systems, similar to the ones used in airports and stadiums, could be another option. Since touchless systems are already used for sinks, paper towel and soap dispensers, it doesn't seem that far fetched to see touchless sensors for other things, like coffeemakers, elevators, and other doors.


Though these are all viable solutions, the reality is these changes cost money, which may make it difficult for offices to adapt. Because of this, a more feasible solution is letting employees be flexible with when and where they work. Many people have discovered they can complete their tasks just as efficiently or, in some cases, more efficiently as if they were in the office. By letting employees come in as needed, it eliminates the need for individual workstations, which quickly get crowded with new hires. Instead, the office could be used as a collaborative space and for beneficial in-person meetings. This doesn't mean the entire workforce should move to a remote system. There are still benefits to going to the office. As quarantine has shown us, we are social creatures. We need to see other people, and we need to get out of the house. But having people choose when they need to be in the office can contribute to a healthy work/life balance and keep everyone safe.


All these possible changes don't mean anything if we don't emphasize the importance of public health. Though keeping things clean and sanitized is a big priority now, there's a fear this will lessen when the pandemic is over. It's important to educate people about indoor health and encourage its continued practice. Van Den Wymelenberg says, "In the long run, what's perhaps even more important is making holistic environments that support human immune function."


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