What does the “modern office” look like in a post-COVID world? And furthermore, which design ideas would work best for professional office spaces? It’s already clear that face-to-face human interaction builds trust and strong bonds. But our ability to adapt to working remotely has been reliant upon the relationships we’ve built over time through the spontaneous social connections that happen in person. The spaces we once shared—where we socialized, collaborated, focused and rejuvenated—enhanced our work experience.
But when we return to new environments sporting new office designs, what will happen to these spaces that we once loved? How will they change?
After several months working apart, employees now say the main reason they want to come back to the office is to be with other people, socialize, and collaborate in ways that just aren’t possible remotely. That’s why a diverse range of modern office design trends that support these work modes—collaboration in particular—will be here to stay. What’s more, they are likely to be even more popular. But the main challenge will require us to examine how these traditional trends can evolve to meet new expectations in a post-pandemic workplace.
Under the Microscope: Modern Office Design Trends
So how exactly must we approach new office space design ideas? A lot has happened over the past two years. That experience gave us an opportunity to learn more about what works well and what doesn’t. In the last few months, we’ve looked to those learnings to help us design a more thoughtful experience to help our employees through the transition.
A recent McKinsey study cites strategic planning and employee communication as critical elements for transitioning into the next stage of office return. While most organizations say they intend to embrace hybrid work, 68% have not clearly communicated a vision for post-pandemic work practices. The lack of specifics makes employees anxious and leaves them without a clear understanding of what to expect.
This past spring, bkm OfficeWorks worked together to lay out a transparent plan for ramping up returns to the office. We communicated on how we plan to keep everyone safe, aligned the leadership team around an updated flexible work policy, and laid out expectations for balancing work in the office with work done elsewhere.
We do know that this will be challenging. Our human brains are naturally resistant to change, and after a year of non-stop adaptation, people are tired. As we continue to adapt to a “new normal”, the script continues to shift. The following will provide insight on functional ways to help with the transition—some practical, some based on principle, and some with regard to productivity.
- Desk Pods and Work Tents: Plastic plexiglass shields are so… last year. They might have worked—to an extent—to help the immediate spread of COVID while we still didn’t know much about the disease. While they likely provided a more sanitary environment, they are also quite detrimental to teamwork and collaboration. Pods—or tents—that separate workers or teams into smaller, more intimate groups still leave room for collaboration, while also leaving space for safe distancing.
- Social Desk Distancing: If you’ve made your pods, now you can add some distance. At the start of the pandemic, social distancing was a novelty for all of us. But now we’ve realized that this is one of the most effective ways to ward off the spread of COVID. Implementing office desk layout ideas that support socially distanced protocols could be a great way to not only minimize infection, but also give workers the comfort and ease that comes along with having a bit of extra personal space.
- Outdoor Spaces: Research suggests that being outdoors where there’s plenty of ventilation is a great way to lower the risk of spreading COVID-19. Many organizations are experimenting with the idea of creating outdoor common spaces where workers have the option to retreat to when they feel necessary.
- Touchless Technology: From what we know, COVID-19 spreads the fastest amongst solid surfaces that are frequently touched. If organizations can invest in technology that doesn’t require the contact of human touch, they can minimize the risk of infection. For example, entry and exit ways can function with some type of touchless key fobs instead of handles. Or, automatic sinks and dryers can be installed in bathroom common areas.
- Better air filtration: Another common way COVID-19 is spread? Respiratory droplets. Maintaining a space that circulates clean air is crucial for minimizing any chance of spread. New office designs should prioritize installing clean air filtration systems throughout work spaces.
- Video chat rooms: Even though many employees are physically returning to work, there may also be plenty who continue to work from home. To accommodate both of these scenarios, it could be wise to design some sort of video conferencing space that is dedicated to the hybrid cross between virtual and in-person meetings.
Proximity and density pose some of the greatest new office design challenges for shared spaces that are intended to bring people together. The proximity of people must now take physical distancing into account. The proximity of people to technology for meeting in open spaces must match the provisions of enclosed spaces. They should also accommodate remote participants. And the proximity of furniture must consider density and adjacencies in new ways.
Privacy—acoustical, visual, informational, territorial—is still critical to making today’s shared spaces productive. Each form of privacy contributes to creating a sense of psychological comfort and security—helping people feel at ease, free to share ideas, and make work visible. But territorial privacy takes on additional significance for safety. Screens, or adding divisions, can not only help you claim a space but also create boundaries to protect users from people in close workspaces or traffic flow.
A wide range of postures—seated, stool height, lounging, perching, standing—enables work to happen more effectively while contributing to health and wellbeing. This can also provide more flexibility in creating greater or less distance.
The aesthetics of shared spaces often drive design and help set the tone for an organization’s brand and culture. That connection to identity is a huge plus for employees. As we learn more about virus transmission via the air and hard surfaces, the pandemic has created a new focus on cleanability for the fabrics and finishes of today’s shared spaces.
Shared spaces can also enrich employee wellbeing by design. They can simply make us feel better. A range of postures can encourage active collaboration or relaxed conversation—reducing the physical stress that affects productivity. Introducing biophilia by bringing the outdoors in through living walls and natural materials can contribute to better health and wellbeing, both by improving air quality and connecting us to the calming effects of nature. And research is showing that being outdoors with access to fresh air is not just good for our state of mind but may be inherently safer than indoor environments. Leveraging outdoor spaces to create areas for socializing and collaborating provides more choices for safer work environments.
Getting Results: Best Office Layout Ideas for Productivity
- Leverage open space: Shared social and collaborative spaces created in open spaces can more easily respond to common design challenges by providing greater flexibility for physical distancing and circulation patterns.
- Integrate remote participants through technology: Equip meeting rooms with state-of-the-art video conferencing technology to enhance the overall experience for both remote and in-office workers.
- Design in flexibility: Enable spaces to expand and contract as needed by integrating more individual seating, modularity, and flexible pieces.
- Rethink traffic direction (one-way vs. two-way): Be intentional about the placement of furniture, boundary elements and accessories to cue cultural office behaviors.
- Transform and equip outdoor spaces: Provide outdoor furniture and work tools to enable teams, enhance collaboration, and increase performance in outdoor spaces.
Finding new and innovative ways to fill our spaces in a post-pandemic world will continue to change as we move forward. bkm Officeworks will be here to keep you in the know. Our new digital magazine, bkm Pulse, always provides the latest workplace research, insights, and product solutions designed for your industry. Download your copy today.
We’d also like to invite you to explore our New Office and Hybrid Work resources here. There’s a new free webinar available on bringing employees back to hybrid workplaces, featuring global business insights and data shared by bkm and Steelcase.