Offices after COVID: wider hallways, fewer offices

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan. – The coronavirus has already changed the way we work. Now that also changes the physical space.

Many companies adapt their desks to help employees feel safer when they return to work in person, such as improving air circulation systems or moving away from offices. Others are abandoning offices and building more conference rooms to accommodate employees who still work remotely but come for meetings.

Architects and designers say this is a time of experimentation and reflection for employers. Steelcase, an office furniture company based in Grand Rapids, Mich., Says its research indicates that half of global companies plan to make major office redesigns this year.

“This year made you think, perhaps even more fundamentally than ever before, ‘Hey, why are we going to an office? “said Natalie Engels, San Jose, Calif.-based design director at Gensler, an architectural firm.

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Not all companies make changes and Engels stresses that they don’t have to. She tells customers to remember what worked – and what didn’t – before the pandemic.

But designers say many companies are looking for new ways to make employees feel safe and energized in the office, especially since a labor shortage makes hiring more difficult.

This is what prompted food and pharmaceutical company Ajinomoto to revise the design of its new North American headquarters outside of Chicago last year.

Ajinomoto employees returned to work in person in May in a building with wider hallways and glass panels between cabins, to give them more space and try to make them feel more secure. To improve mental health, the company transformed a planned workspace into a spa-like “relaxation room” with reclining chairs and soft music. A test kitchen is wired for virtual presentations in case customers do not wish to travel. And a cleaning crew comes by twice a day, leaving post-its to show what has been sanitized.

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“Maybe that is overkill, but maybe it reassures those with sensitivities to return to a work environment in person,” said Ryan Smith, executive vice president of Ajinomoto North America. Smith estimates that 40% of the design of the new headquarters has changed due to COVID.

Shobha Surya, Associate Director of Projects and Sales at Ajinomoto, is energized by the space.

“The office gives you a balance between work and home life,” she said. “You are more focused here and have no distractions. “

Surya said she was also excited to be working alongside her colleagues again.

She is not alone. Polls show that what employees lack most in office work is socializing and collaborating with their co-workers, said Lise Newman, director of workplace practices at architecture firm SmithGroup. Companies are trying to encourage this relationship by creating more social centers for employees. Some mimic cafes, with hardwood floors, cabin seats, and hanging lamps.

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“Companies are trying to create a feeling that this is a cool club that people want to get in,” Newman said.

Steelcase has divided one of its halls into comfortable meeting spaces of different sizes, separated by green partitions. Mobile video monitors can be installed so that people working remotely can be included in the discussions.

But after a year of working from home, some employees crave privacy, so Steelcase has added more glass booths for private calls and cocoon-style booths with small sliding doors.

Mark Bryan, senior interior designer at M + A Architects based in Columbus, Ohio, expects a more fluid office culture in the future, with different workplaces every day. Introverts can choose a small private room; extroverts, a table in the office cafe.

Some office changes reflect a new commitment to hybrid work. Valiant Technologies, which provides technical support and other services to businesses, lets its employees work primarily from home, but has them reserved an office for the days they wish to come to the office. The New York-based company has done away with rows of desks and put more space between the others. Employees leave their keyboard, mouse and headsets in lockers.

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Megan Quick, a business associate at Valiant, said she appreciated the company allowing her to resume her office life this month.

“It will take a long time for us to rehabilitate,” she said. “Valiant letting us dictate our pace of return makes me feel safe. “

Not all design changes will stick. Last summer, when Steelcase started bringing workers back, they moved the cafeteria tables away from each other and allowed only one person per table. It made the space so depressing that no one wanted to sit there, said Jim Keane, CEO of Steelcase.

“An important lesson is that, yes, it has to be safe, but also has to be inspiring,” he said. “People are actually going to expect more from offices in the future.”

After: National News

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