MARCH 2021

Pandemic Proofing: The new normal for workplaces.

Ankita Saigal is a creative problem solver and design enthusiast, with Installation and Set Design being her forte. Constantly visualizing and revamping each space she enters; Ankita brings with her hands-on experience on television and movie sets and a plethora of vibrant hues and aesthetic patterns.

2020 will forever be etched in our memory as the year that made us consider many changes in our lifestyle, the biggest one of them being how to go back to the place we call work. All of a sudden, going to the office was not a necessity and Work from Home (WFH) became the new norm, where employees were questioning whether they would even need to go back to their offices in the future.

Though some employees may love the idea of working from home, it is not sustainable for a lot of companies in the long run. WFH offered a temporary solution for the workforce, however, it cannot replace the office work culture for several reasons. The most common one, being in-person interactions, which lead to an incubation of ideas thereby helping the business grow. Microsoft’s recent Work Trend Index report revealed that a third of the workforce in India faced burnout, more so than any other Asian country, due to lack of
boundaries between home and office lives. A feeling of disconnectedness and isolation from co-workers was among the top stressors for most employees. A survey conducted by real estate consultancy JLL stated that 82% of employees surveyed in India would eventually like to return back to their workplaces. That being said, Microsoft’s data also revealed that the fear of contracting COVID from the workplace and the lack of protective measures taken by employers remains the foremost concern among employees. So, returning to
the workplace would mean a lot of design alterations to provide a safe environment for the employees.

Figure 1 Shanghai Baoye Centre by LYCS Architecture

As companies begin to open up their offices again, they have to make sure their employees feel safe coming to work. The adjustments that are made in workspaces, have to be long term because even if this pandemic is brought under control, it has made us realise just how susceptible we are to yet another one. We don’t know if and when another situation like this will arise, but if it does, it can put our lives back into a standstill. With that in mind, office spaces that were once designed to be safe in case of a fire or an earthquake, now also need to be Pandemic-Proof: spaces need to be altered in order for them to be safer based on the regulations and suggestions by leading health organizations.

Pandemic-proofing offices could involve a number of short-term fixes, new working patterns and long-term design upgrades that put hygiene at the heart of workplace planning.

Here are a few things we think are important to keep in mind in order to prepare workspaces for the new normal:

1. We must ensure that there is enough space in the offices for employees, and that cubicles or workstations are not crammed together, ensuring that there is at least a gap of one person between two individuals.

Figure 2 Pre-Covid Scenario at Workplaces
Source: Author

2. We should look into solutions to help develop individualised spaces, for example, incorporating plexiglass is a potentially good solution as it gives a feeling of being unified yet helps maintain the appropriate distancing and safety norms.

3. Creating graphics and visual elements on doors and walls can liven up space while also reminding people to maintain social distance and maintain health norms.

4. For areas of common use like the toilets and pantry, we should have it cleaned as frequently as possible. For washrooms, it will be ideal to have self-changing toilet seats as well as zero-touch soap dispenser and taps. As for the pantry area, having a limit on the number of people who can use it at one time will be helpful.

5. With meeting rooms and collaborative spaces in the office, we should continue to use virtual technology that we have adapted to in recent times, preventing too many people from gathering in a room together.

6. Using furnishings in the office that can withstand high-intensity cleaning and repeated sanitisation should be preferred.

7. We must Incorporate hand washing and sanitisation stations at different spots at the office that one wouldn’t normally have, for instance right at the reception desk, workstations and at every door entrance too.

Figure 3 Post-Covid ideal workplaces with plexiglass dividers and social distancing.
Source: Author

It is also important to keep in mind that people are soon going to be transitioning from the home office to their workplace, and as designers, we’d recommend making the space as lively as possible. A space that reflects the brand values and is designed keeping in mind your brand identity, fosters productivity and creativity to the fullest. Large brand headquarters could split up into hubs in different locales, saving their employees the risk of catching the virus on their commute to their workplace.

Ideally, it would be great to have a contact-free workplace where sensors work and people avoid touching the elevator buttons or door handles, but we know that’s going to take a while. Until then, we must do our best to ensure that the transition to the new normal is easy and most importantly safe.

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