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Will workers return to re-imagined offices post-pandemic?

For about a year, many Americans have been forced to work from home due to COVID-19 safety concerns. Now, architects and designers are thinking about the future of the workspace for when workers return. As we look to the future, what can we expect of the buildings and workspaces that workers will inhabit after this pandemic, in terms of safety and more remote working? NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It's been a year since COVID-19 concerns forced many Americans to shift from commuting to an office to working from home. And while about a quarter of workers have since returned to their offices, many still work remotely. But as we look to the future and a return to the office, what will those spaces look like and how will they be safer for employees?

    Again, here's Christopher Booker who recently spoke with design professionals to see how they are planning for the post-pandemic future of workspace design.

  • Christopher Booker:

    There are some who say that even before the pandemic, we were doing it wrong.

  • Vivian Loftness:

    We've been moving denser and denser every year to the point where you're literally, it's like a Starbucks bar. You walk in and then there is just a high work surface and shoulder to shoulder people in an office environment.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Vivian Loftness is an architecture professor. She co-directs the Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics at Carnegie Mellon University, along with architect Erica Cochran Hameen.

  • Erica Cochran Hameen:

    We're going to start spacing our desks so that people are six feet apart. We're not, we're going to have to think about how we pass each other in the corridors and looking at what those corridor widths are. And some places might need some plastic shielding.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Some argue that such changes will not only improve the general health of an office, but the outlook of the individuals who work there.

  • Yongyeon Cho:

    I strongly believe a well-designed workspace has power to improve our well-being in general.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Yongyeon Cho is a Professor of interior design at Iowa State University. He partnered with Pennsylvania State University graphics design professor, Huiwon Lim, to compete in the Work Design magazine's 2020 New Work Environment competition.

    Their winning prototype reimagined what collaborative spaces like this conference room might look like.

  • Yongyeon Cho:

    We thought some of like the largest space of meeting rooms will no longer exist in the post-COVID-19. So we transformed this large conference room to middle size.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Their design used hands-free technology to avoid repeated touching of shared surfaces. This door can slide open via a foot pedal and instead of a whiteboard this digital board can be controlled from these desks.

    And in response to the airborne nature of coronavirus transmission, the designers recommended a displaced ventilation system. A relatively common feature in European buildings, fresh air is supplied near floor level which then pushes potentially contaminated air upwards and out of the room through exhaust panels.

    The team also redesigned furniture. These large desks provide six feet buffers between workers. And the material is meant to withstand frequent cleanings.

  • Huiwon Lim:

    We also need to start thinking about how we can create a better classroom, the studio for our students. In this competition, the meeting room can be transformed to the classroom for our students.

  • Christopher Booker:

    So there was really two purposes. On one hand, you're entering the competition, but you're also thinking about how you could incorporate these ideas and designs into your own classroom.

  • Huiwon Lim:

    That's right.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Ohio-based architect William Eberhard thinks some of the changes designers are envisioning don't go far enough.

  • William Eberhard:

    I think the pandemic gives us both an opportunity and an obligation to recognize that the office paradigm we've been using for the last 20 or so years in America is dysfunctional.

  • Christopher Booker:

    He points to the open office plan and studies that suggest the goal of this design, increased meaningful interactions, has failed.

  • William Eberhard:

    It has increased absenteeism and sickness. And of course, if you want to return and deal with the pandemic issues and a greater sensitivity to airborne contaminants, trying to move that car down the road when it already has no wheels, it's not a useful exercise. I think those circumstances require a complete reset.

  • Christopher Booker:

    This is a conversation that is basically coming to every space in which we exist, from hospitals to schools and to the office. The change in the design of all of this will be have to assume profound if we decide to take those steps

  • William Eberhard:

    The post-pandemic world to be effective and stay safe, we probably need to go back to looking like a bit more like what we did in the 90s with physical dividers between people, mixed with the right number of huddle rooms where people can go for higher acoustical privacy when needed in collaboration spaces that allow people to maintain safe distancing while still being able to share ideas and display thinking.

  • Christopher Booker:

    For Erica Cochran Hameen redesigning the workspace will require looking beyond the boundaries of indoor spaces.

  • Erica Cochran Hameen:

    You know, you've got unused untapped spaces like roofs that could be turned into green roofs, patios that may not be used. There's no reason that your conference room has to be in a glass box in the middle of your building.

  • Vivian Loftness:

    And I'm hoping that this sets a new trend in office environments where people say, I want to work in a place where all the windows all open and I feel like I'm in a fresh air environment.

  • Christopher Booker:

    That trend may already be taking shape in warmer climates like California.

  • Andy Lantz:

    For us in our current office, we're lucky enough to have the ability to control opening up the perimeters so we have sliders, we have garage doors. And what that does is it really allows a healthy airflow.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Andy Lantz is the Creative Director of RIOS, a design firm based in Los Angeles. In March, when the pandemic forced their staff to work remotely, they took the opportunity to redesign their office space to meet their new needs.

  • Andy Lantz:

    And so we kind of shook aside all of the noise in the industry of what suggestions were and recommendations were for the workplace and built an approach that utilized surveys and information from our own staff.

  • Christopher Booker:

    What emerged from the surveys, like many other offices around the country, was a desire for a hybrid model — part-time at home, part-time in the office. This along with public health guidelines became the principles RIOS used to redesign its office.

    There were several changes, including eliminating permanent desks. Workers can use an app to reserve a space when they want to be in the office. RIOS is also experimenting with how to connect remote employees to those in the office. This materials lab has an overhead camera that allows workers at home to collaborate with their colleagues in the office.

    Lantz says some of the changes both to his office and client projects may seem small, but they are effective.

    Take the BAFs.

  • Andy Lantz:

    You can kind of see behind me. We also installed here at our office, these 'giant big ass fans' is the name of them.

  • Christopher Booker:

    That's the technical name?

  • Andy Lantz:

    It's literally the product name.

  • Christopher Booker:

    According to the manufacturers, these large fans can kill 99.99% of pathogens.

    But are elements like fans the most forward-thinking designs?

    My mind goes to Jetson-type solutions. I'm envisioning pods and that were in these very interesting chairs that are self-cleaning and all kinds of new desks and screens. But speaking with you it doesn't necessarily sound like that's in the future.

  • Andy Lantz:

    I think it could be. But we're, a few months into what will become a significant awakening in the vaccinated future of COVID. And I think right now for us, we're looking at this as sort of a revolution in what work can be so thinking a year from now, thinking two years from now. I think it would be awesome to imagine the Jetsons' future. We may be scattered in big roaming fields or in some really interesting collection of pods and unique situations. I think that's where we're heading, is to a new future that's not bound by the tradition of a convention. So, to the Jetsons and beyond.

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