Even before COVID-19 made its first appearance in our lives, there was a subtle undercurrent of change occurring in the way workplaces were being designed.

Now, it’s about as subtle as a tsunami.

Let’s set aside the imminent surge of difficulties regarding tenants paying rent for the moment and focus on the office environments that only a short time ago were efficiently organized with bustling workers. Even when a cure is found, things have irreversibly changed. Questions that would have elicited raised eyebrows before COVID-19 will surely be asked in the post-COVID era:

Is shaking hands now officially taboo?

How closely should people work together?

Are physical meetings really necessary?

People need to feel safe within their workplaces; the current threat is no longer workplace violence, but microbes. It’s inevitable that people will work differently after the pandemic, hopefully they’ll also return to using normal amounts of TP.

As we resume working, albeit differently, what lessons do we take from COVID-19 and implement in building design?

A few highlights as I see them:

1.    Architecture: Whereas 50sf per person was quickly becoming the norm (especially for coworking), workers now need natural distancing and solutions for efficient virtual work now that many will be limiting their office time. Is this the tipping point for the sharing mentality for the workplace?

2.    Engineering: Buildings and work environments need to make air circulation, fresh air exchanges, +/- pressurization and HVAC filtration systems a priority and not an afterthought.

3.    Property Maintenance: Cleaning crews need to review their policies for cleaning door handles, surfaces, break-rooms and the schedule by which they perform these tasks at night, but company culture may include this as a standard before leaving a conference room. Will we start planning on more touchless solutions?

4.    HR / Culture: Physical meetings of more than 4 people will become less and less frequent, being replaced by virtual meetings for large groups. Working remotely will happen more frequently and should be mandatory while sick.

So… “Why would anyone who can work from home ever want to go back to an office again?”

If an office’s only value proposition is simply physical proximity (internet, coworkers, management, etc…) then it is a liability, both on the balance sheet as well as for worker safety. Online tools are becoming more and more advanced to chip away at the need for a physical work environment.

OK, why have an office at all?

Never-mind the fact that sheltering in place is causing me to have an abnormal frequency of political conversations with my dog (his views of treat and toy distribution are highly suspect)…

Because a good office builds culture while creating an environment that makes people focused, efficient, safe and able to concentrate as most home environments are not. We were built for varying degrees of human connection and people still need to be able to concentrate and focus in order to work. This dynamic has not, and will not, change. As we call into question the basic tenants of workplace health, we should also question what a work environment is supposed to do and why it’s needed.

In addition to the safety concerns and corresponding design adjustments as mentioned above, workplaces need to be functions of focused work, collective culture; separate from family and social distractions.

In a recent book by Cal Newport titled, ‘Deep Work’, he describes the optimal environment and state of mind to dive into an intensely focused work session. We’ve all experienced it. You’re ‘in the zone’, you lose track of time, forget to check your phone, and end up producing your best work. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional athlete, artist, spreadsheet ninja or mason. This heightened experience is called ‘Flow State’, a term popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book of the same name.

Flow State is characterized by an individual’s ability to disconnect from the frontal lobe during a period of heightened stress or concentration and let their natural abilities manifest in movement, action or production; mind and body working as one with little to no analytical thought.

The design of post-COVID office environments can facilitate Deep Work focus which result in a more conscious Flow State experience that people genuinely find fulfilling and pleasing. It’s the dopamine rush that accompanies solving a puzzle or problem and explains why video games are so addicting.

These, and other newly emerging design theories, coupled with best practices for combating pathogens will be the new normal for office design and will build evidence for the office’s continued relevance.  As we brace ourselves for the COVID infection peak that has yet to appear, we need to be equally as resolved to proactively tackle the recovery period that will follow, by learning, adapting and innovating the environment in which we connect with each other and our work.