Even before COVID-19, open-plan office designs were on the decline.
Though open workplaces were once the talk of commercial office design and implemented by many large enterprises, studies have shown that open floor plans have the opposite effect than they were meant to. Findings from a study funded by Harvard Business School showed that open floor plans with limited boundaries “actually decreased the volume of face-to-face interaction significantly, by approximately 70%,” while virtual interaction via email and instant messenger increased.
In the same study, researchers found that open-plan offices appeared to reduce productivity, triggering a natural human response to withdraw from team members socially—the exact opposite effect that the architectural changes were intending to engender.
Now, open-style offices are declining even faster than usual, as businesses contemplate restarting their operations in a way that minimizes face-to-face interaction among employees and reduces the risk of viral transmission. Business owners are turning to experts in design and architecture to create new office layouts that allow for social distancing and health-first work environments.
Prioritizing health and safety-first design features
As Alexandra Cuber, director of hospitality at New York architecture and design firm Fogarty Finger Architecture (FFA), points out, elements like visual cleanliness, adequate spacing, and touch-free fixtures and hardware have become a top priority in recent months.
“Clients want to provide an environment where their employees can return to work and feel safe,” says Cuber.
Other design features that have been in high demand as a result of COVID-19? “Appropriate distancing between desks or screening, clear wayfinding and social distance reminders, sanitizing stations throughout the floor, and easy cleanable materials,” says Cuber.
Through constant research, webinars, and collaborating with other consultants, FFA has prioritized education and knowledge sharing to provide clients with these and other post-COVID sensitive design approaches. In many scenarios, clients need immediate solutions so that their operations can resume safely, quickly, and at minimal risk.
According to FFA, touch-free equipment in restrooms, kitchen areas, entries, and elevators may be the most effective design change that shared offices like coworking spaces can implement for enhanced safety purposes. “[Employees] want to arrive at their desk without having to touch anything,” states Cuber.
This type of automation will become increasingly commonplace, as COVID-19 has sped up the development of touch-free technology to mitigate contagion. Additionally, coworking spaces will see the need for more individual spaces and separate desks, which could lead to complete design overhauls and reimagined layouts.
FFA’s recent work on major coworking projects
Though design trends such as sliding doors at entries and visually clean environments have been foregrounded in 2020, FFA’s recent projects for flexible workspace clients show that there is still room for socialization and human contact in office environments.
For their work on Rockefeller Group’s new 40,000 RSF (rentable square footage) headquarters at 1271 Avenue of the Americas in New York City, for example, FFA’s team worked to create a more connected culture that helps drive increased productivity and innovation. The workplace includes a coworking concept within it that gives employees the chance to work safely from wherever they are most comfortable in their space.
“Every employee is equipped with a laptop and can work wherever they do their best work, whether it be their dedicated workstation, one of the many formal and informal meeting rooms and areas throughout the office, or the large cafe and collaborative workspace called The Commons,” says Cuber.
In the case of Rockefeller Group, the new workplace and coworking concept has led to a noticeable spike in energy and collaboration between employees, giving evidence to the value of both shared spaces alongside private workspaces. With workers being able to choose where they work within a spacious shared office, their workday can better suit their needs and encourage safe collaboration.
FFA also recently designed 60,000 RSF of lobby and interior amenities at Dock 72 in Brooklyn Navy Yard for Boston Properties and Rudin Management. Presently, WeWork is the anchor tenant in the building.
By tailoring the lobby and amenity spaces to the needs of coworking clients, the firm implemented a large multipurpose event space, formal and informal meeting areas, as well as a fitness center, juice bar, and coffee bar. The program also includes a marketplace and several lounges so tenants have everything they may need under one roof. Again, the flexibility that the space provides to workers makes it easy for safety and cleanliness to be prioritized. More multi-purpose coworking spaces like FFA’s recent projects can be expected in a post-COVID work environment, giving employees the option to work wherever they feel most comfortable.
Benefits of coworking in a post-pandemic environment
As coworking operators work tirelessly to implement adequate changes for a more safe return to work, several top markets for flexible office space are already witnessing a higher demand than in pre-COVID times. This is good news for coworking—highlighting the need for a “third space” that is neither a person’s home nor their traditional, crowded office.
For the rising number of people whose roles have transitioned to permanently remote, coworking spaces are an increasingly attractive option, especially in cities. “Most of us live in small spaces that were never designed to be a working space,” says Cuber. As a result, coworking spaces — which offer different types of workspaces including outdoor options, technology like video conferencing connectivity, and a sense of community — are now in focus for the post-pandemic future. Once certain design changes are made, these shared spaces are well-equipped to provide a safer, more flexible work experience that many remote professionals will be looking for.