The Delta variant of COVID-19 has had a nasty habit of infecting clusters of unvaccinated people even in well-vaccinated areas, and while that has slowed the national economic recovery and given some employers pause with their return-to-office plans, it has not had much of an impact on the way the post-pandemic office is being designed.
That’s according to Madison construction industry executives who confirmed that COVID-19 protocols of masks and distancing and vaccine expectations, at least as far as commercial offices are concerned, will be a permanent feature of the office environment. When IB last reported on the return to the office, some of the new design approaches we were made aware of included hoteling spaces that can be reserved ahead of time, and more flexible collaborative spaces where reimagined space is made possible by modular construction and flexible furnishings — all combined with healthy lighting, acoustics, and refreshed air flow.
The Delta variant, which spreads faster than previously detected COVID-19 strains, has caused another spike in hospitalizations and related deaths among the most vulnerable populations, but it has not changed return-to-office design thinking, according to John Chapman, vice president and Madison studio director for Eppstein Uhen Architects.
“Given the fact that there was the new variant, the pandemic protocols aren’t going away, and these safer office designs are here to stay,” Chapman says. “There won’t be sort of a post-pandemic office design. It will become the standard in office design.”
EUA recently surveyed its workplace clients, and they say the three most important things for their return to the office are as follows:
• First, the quality of their indoor air, “and so we’re seeing more fresh air put into the workplace,” Chapman says. “In fact, even in our offices, we’ve added sensors in our conference rooms that when a certain amount of people enter, more fresh air is delivered into that room, so I think things like that will occur.”
• Second, people want their companies to have the basic COVID safety protocols and make people adhere to them.
• Third, people want things to be as touchless as possible, whether it’s elevators, faucets, or any other equipment or fixture that human beings touch. “We’re seeing an increase in that desire,” Chapman states.
Better indoor air does not necessary require an expensive upgrade. In fact, it can be inexpensive by installing better quality filters, more operable windows, and modifications to existing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment.
As for office design, business owners are still trying to figure out the office of the future. In its recent survey, EUA asked about the timing of whether people are back in the office or coming back to the office, and the diversity of responses ranged from “we never left the office” to “we don’t know if we’re ever coming back to the office.”
Chapman believes it’s about designing for each individual client and their team members’ needs and offering a variety of choices of where they can work within a building — with the maintenance of company culture in mind. “Some companies have gone to partially working remotely and partially coming back to the office. That’s probably the most common response, whether it’s two days of remote work or one day of working remotely,” Chapman says. “Again, it depends on what the company is doing."
“In our business, being in the design profession, we feel it’s important to have face-to-face collaboration, so we’ve gone to a model that allows our employees to work remotely one day a week, and they can select that day."