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EUA Design Experts on How Workplace Design May Shift After COVID-19

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EUA brought together seven workplace designers from our Milwaukee, Madison and Denver offices over a remote discussion from their homes to talk about workplace design following the COVID-19 pandemic. As we return to our existing work settings how will office design adapt and change in the short-term, as well as over the longer-term, how will this shape the future of office design? Here is what they had to say.

Question #1: What will be some physical modifications in the short-term?
Question #2: What behavioral shifts do you anticipate upon returning to the office?
Question #3: How will companies continue to support collaboration and trust-building?
Question #4: How will the workplace environment change?
Question #5: The open vs. closed office debate and measuring productivity with working remote.
Question #6: How will companies approach wellness?

Heather Turner Loth - Workplace Strategy - EUA Milwaukee

Jen Singson - Senior Interior Designer / Architect - EUA Milwaukee
Kitty Yuen - Principal - EUA Denver
John Chapman - Studio Director - EUA Madison
Renee Riviere - Senior Interior Designer - EUA Madison
Jennifer Herr - Senior Interior Designer - EUA Milwaukee
Michelle Olsen - Senior Interior Designer - EUA Milwaukee
Eric Romano - Studio Director - EUA Milwaukee


Heather: Good morning everyone, it's great to connect with all of you this morning. The COVID virus has created a heightened concern about the spread of infections, particularly in our workplace environments so this morning we're going to discuss how you see workplace design, and maybe even some of our behaviors changing within the workplace, for the short term and long term. Before we get into the questions, please introduce yourselves and share a silver lining for you as you reflect on the current work from home during social distancing and a challenge that you're may be facing.

Jen: Hey! It's Jen Singson, Senior Interior Designer, in the Milwaukee office, calling in from Elm Grove today. Currently the silver lining for me has been no rush hour commute. I don’t have to drive into the sun twice a day. That’s been amazing and I can either sleep in or do a little yoga beforehand. Challenge wise, I miss my height-adjustable workstation and my dual-monitor set up. That’s what I miss.

Kitty: This is Kitty Yuen, Principal in the Denver office. My setup is very similar with the aid of technology, but the silver lining, I would agree with Jen, is no commute. It's just a more effective use of my time and not having to drive downtown. For the greatest challenge, I miss collaboration, the drive-by critiques, charettes and working with other people. I find I can make comments on Bluebeam but I can't really sketch while I am talking and that’s hard for me.

Michelle: Good Morning. It's Michelle Olsen, Senior Interior Designer in the Milwaukee office. I'm calling in from Shorewood. There are a couple of positive things for me. I really like being able to focus more; for me, there has been less disruptions throughout the day. I also get to spend more time with my significant other in the same room and walking at lunch. I think challenge wise; I miss not being able to bounce any kind of design ideas off neighboring designers for their immediate input.

Jennifer: Hey, this is Jennifer Herr, Senior Interior Designer in the Milwaukee office, calling in from West Allis. The positives for me would be the time saved related to commuting and getting ready in the morning. The time saved has allowed me to do things that I enjoy, like cooking and getting out mid-day for a run. The challenges for me, I would echo Kitty and the others regarding the face to face interaction, the time collaborating and the social aspect that going into the office provides. I’m eager to get back to that.

Renee: Good morning everybody, Renee Riviere, Senior Interior Designer, in the Madison office, coming to you from Maple Bluff this morning. The silver lining for me has been the ability to slow down a bit more and be grateful for what we do have. Biggest challenge, like others, is the physical separation from my team as far as sketching side-by-side and mentoring. I think we are learning new ways to do this together, so we are getting through it.

John: Good morning I am John Chapman, a Design Principal and Studio Director of our Madison office. One of my silver lining moments during this time has been that I’m learning a whole new career. I think I might be able to practice law at the end of this. My better half, who is an attorney, is in the office next to me; so, I’ve learned so much. The thing I miss the most, is a common theme; being together. I like being able to see expressions and connect with people literally vs. virtually.

Eric: I'm Eric Romano, Design Principal and Studio Director of the Workplace Studio in Milwaukee. I am calling in from my home in St Louis, Missouri. The silver lining for me has been the lack of commute as well. I have been enjoying so much more time with my family. It has been awesome. What has been most challenging; the lack of real human interaction, sitting down next to somebody and having that face to face conversation. It just doesn’t feel the same as it used to.

Heather: Good morning again everyone, I'm Heather Turner Loth. I lead Workplace Strategy at EUA. I am calling in from home in Muskego, Wisconsin. I would say the silver lining for me has been more time with my kiddos. It's been fun to be a part of their lives throughout the day. They are also my greatest challenge.  Working from home while trying to keep up with their class assignments has been challenging – extremely challenging. I also miss my EUA family dearly, and as others mentioned, not having that in-person contact with people has been tough.

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Question #1: What will be some physical modifications in the short-term?

Heather: As we consider day one and we return to the workplace, what physical changes in the workplace might be made to help make the return to work safer for employees. 

Kitty: I think we're going to see some changes in policy and how our client leverages their real estate. What I was thinking about was on the ratios and how companies allocate space. If it is 80% closed and 20% open, like a law firm, for example. Their attitudes may stay relatively the same because they have offices that are somewhat compartmentalized from a separation standpoint. Those companies who have more open office and less closed offices, may consider how they evaluate the proximity of space and how dense they are allowing their staff to fill real estate. They may consider staggered work hours or alternating days that people can come in in an open office environment in the short-term.

Michelle: Yeah, I think people are going to want to feel safe and comfortable when they return. I was thinking about the open office and I agree with Kitty, I like the idea of staggered workdays in some of the high-density areas. Do we see people return more when they are comfortable, rather than a date that's mandated? Everyone is going to have a certain comfort level about coming into the office again and so that was one thing that crossed my mind. But I think as far as the physical space, it will be important to remove items like clutter from isles and desks – moving to a clean desk policy so the ease of cleaning is improved in the workplace. Also, limiting the number of chairs in conference rooms may also help with more efficient cleaning after use, while promoting decreased meeting sizes. I think companies may look to provide more flexibility on where people work throughout the day. Some companies support a lot of different opportunities; for others, this may be an opportunity to increase alternate work locations that will support an employee’s preference based on their comfort levels when returning to work.

Renee: I have heard from some of our clients that although the pandemic was not the push that they would have ever imagined, it has provided that catalyst that they needed to implement some policies they've been pondering for a long time such as work from home. It has re-launched a lot of the discussions with our clients regarding supporting the differing work styles and work point sharing. I don’t know that we are necessarily hearing a desire to shift to two people to share one desk, but we are hearing what the options are to do a 10-20% sharing ratio in a department. These are not new concepts, but I believe over the past few weeks these concepts are regaining traction and there is more openness for experimentation since our norms have really changed overnight.

John: The sharing ratio is an interesting topic and something that we're using today with companies, pre-pandemic. I think sharing ratios, wherever they may land for a company, will just raise that cleanliness bar conversation.  If we increase sharing of workstations, I think the sort of standards in terms of cleanliness might be raised as well.

Kitty: Corporations that offer food service as an amenity, may consider how they serve their food or how it is being prepared. Some of the food vendors may start to prep food away from the client space or use things like turbo chef, like what Starbucks does. These type of food preparations and serving limits the amount of contact people have and the number of people touching your food and of course could take far less footprint than traditional kitchens would require for on-site food preparation. I believe it’s a quick fix for people to still offer food to their employees; however, limits the preparation, transporting and the use of the kitchen space.

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Question #2: What behavioral shifts do you anticipate upon returning to the office?

Heather: As we return back to the office do you see any new behaviors as a result of the COVID19 pandemic. I think you were hitting on a couple of these Michelle. Are there any other behaviors we may see as employees return to the office on day one?

Jennifer H: Yeah, I think there will be stricter measures on if staying home if you are sick. I think there will be a heightened awareness of being respectful of your coworkers. I think our American culture is one that plows through even if we are sick: We can do it! We can get it done! I think social norms will prevail around this evolving behavior; If I’m feeling at all bad, I’m staying home – and that is ok for me and more widely supported by my co-workers.

Jen S: I was thinking that in the shared spaces like conference rooms, if we are going to be wiping them down before and after use, it would be convenient to have sanitizing stations and wipes handy in each room. Also meeting control, particularly with guests   may need to be considered in the near term as we head back to the office.

Heather; Yes, how guests check in, visitor paths throughout the building - are their temperatures taken? All of this will have to be considered while we balance the experience of feeling welcome in expansive lobbies and friction-less systems that so many companies have today.

Renee: We may find productivity increasing by working from home, so we may see more opportunities to support work life balance not just for illness but also for personal situations or for growth.

John: I was just going to say that about 20 years ago there were these little toilet rooms called sanisettes scattered throughout Paris and people would use them and when they left, the whole room container sort of washed itself with some chemical. Not sure if we are going to head back to this, but we will be thinking more in those sorts of terms in terms behaviors or new mechanisms for cleanliness.

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Question #3: How will companies continue to support collaboration and trust-building?

Heather: As we consider innovation; it is rooted in trust among employees, the ability to connect with other employees and feel safe to share your ideas. What ways might the physical space be modified to help support trust building as we consider a more dispersed or mobile workforce?

Jen S:  I was thinking more about my personal experience during this time, things like virtual happy hours that we have been doing have helped promote some of the team building. As far as when we return, I think the use of platforms like Microsoft Teams to connect really allows sort of a live, ongoing connection with teams. I see the use of platforms like this only increasing as we return to the office. Also, the physical design solutions we have already been introducing into our client spaces such as glass front offices and meeting spaces, where there is physical separation yet maintaining a visual connection, we may see continue an increase in some instances. It will promote the distancing, however, help employees feel they are all still in one office space and not fully separated.

Heather: A client of ours shared interest in larger communal spaces and less of a footprint for the workstation environment as a way to bring those employees together who may be more mobile now. Considering the distancing, do we have to reconsider the design of those larger communal spaces?

Kitty: I think that in order for employee's to feel fully satisfied, and not like you're just coming in to do your job and leave, there still needs to be spaces for people to gather and connect, but how we do that and offer that to them? We may consider a design with different zones within larger communal spaces for people. We can't dictate how people will work but what we can do is offer more of a variety of spaces. For example, in larger communal spaces or all hands spaces it may include two or three pockets where people feel comfortable gathering in smaller groups.

Heather: Sure. So still promoting that distancing. Everybody can still come into a larger space but maybe not all together in that same space.

Kitty: Yeah exactly. Have the space available but carve out little pockets that are not fully open for those who may not still feel comfortable doing that and if other people are more comfortable and feel like it is okay going back to where they were, they can also do that too. But I feel like it is more mindset for people that may evolve over time.

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Question #4: How will the workplace environment change?

Heather: As we think of more of the long-term solutions, I am interested in understanding the points of view this group has in terms of how employers might consider adjustments to the workplace longer term as a result of social distancing and increases in working from home?

John: Well I think several our clients are turning to the WELL building standards and they're interested in investing in a building that really promotes health and well-being whether that’s through clean air, daylight, or biophilic elements found in nature. It is about the effect of the environment on each individual or each employee both physiologically and as well as psychologically. It is interesting, the CDC today came out with some guidelines for an essential employee returning to their workplace and they talk about the employers taking temperatures of potential employees and increasing hand sanitation as well as increasing fresh air within buildings. So, it will be interesting to see if there are, and I assume there will be, code ramifications to some of this that will have to move forward, particularly in terms of our MEP systems and the design of our buildings.

Jennifer H: One thing that I think may change or that could help is we may want to see more frequency in professional cleaning staff coming in. Typically, cleaning teams come in at the end of the day and the workforce barely interfaces with them, but we will see an increase of cleaning teams coming in mid-day to help increase the cleaning of surfaces throughout the office. Also, in larger campus buildings or multi-tenanted building do we see staffed bathrooms with attendants? Or do we see elevator operators or friction-less technology to operate elevators, increase? I've seen this more in different parts of the world, maybe we would start to see that increase here in the United States.

Jen S: Going back to the whole benching idea, as far as people, whether they might be a leerier to adopt that approach, I think it's very specific to the market, culture of an organization, the team or types of employees who need really direct collaborations. I think benching stations may get a little bigger or a little deeper or just may be staggered a bit where you are not literally across from somebody's face. The footprint for those might become a little bit bigger but with still having a need for that type of work they'll probably still be spaces carved out within open offices to incorporate that.

Eric: In regards to the shared amenities, I like the idea that Kitty pointed out about compartmentalizing certain spaces, the shared amenities will be a big point for us to really dig into and understand what is a safer design that we can come up with that helps promote collaboration and trust within the company.

Heather: Yes, and the shared amenity spaces, restrooms, break areas, etc., all these areas may have opportunities that could be simple fixes, and to Michelle’s point, not a complete overhaul. The swing on restroom doors, to swing out, or ice makers in break areas being more that resemble ice makers in healthcare settings. Simple features of an office, like these, are all things companies may consider as ways to promote a healthier work environment for employees. What about the way we specific materials on surfaces, furniture, the walls even; do we see this evolving in the workplace environment?

Michelle: I could imagine looking to the Healthcare industry, we have some great internal experts at EUA, that could certainly provide some guidance in selecting and specifying materials to use in our corporate environments. You know there are all kinds of great technology out there, door and lavatory hardware that is comprised of copper that can kill bacteria over the course of two hours. There are antimicrobial finishes that are fired into the surface of tile and bleach cleanable fabric. So, there are lots of things that are already being used by the healthcare industry that could translate to the workplace environment.

Kitty: Yeah so about the open communal spaces we talked about before, the training rooms and conference rooms, I agree with Eric we need to program and envision them still for groups and gatherings but we need to work with our clients more about ultimately what these will functions be. We can't holistically change it overnight but it's our job to help reimagine things for them. Take lobbies for example, do you have public zones that are more limited and secure so maybe a series of anterooms, kind of old school, so a zone where the public can meet and wait and then a little bit more open for people that are actually there for meetings and such, with deliveries cordoned off to one area so they are not always tracking so much in. Then invited attendees to conferences may come to a little further in zone that’s designed and held. It's our jobs to still make it look like a nice reception space for everyone to use but I think there's thought behind programming and how to do that, we share with clients how to limit the amount of interactions and exposure for people to come in their space

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Question #5: The remote vs. closed office debate and measuring productivity with working remote?

Heather: Michelle I wanted to discuss the private office idea further, if people have the opportunity and have proven that they can work from home, does that now become their private office and then really the work environment becomes the collaboration space long term? I mean do you see a scenario potentially panning out like that or companies considering that?

Michelle: Yes, sure! I think in many ways we have proven that we can get our work done remotely so I don’t know that we need a complete overhaul of the workplace, we can communicate and collaborate together using technology, so sure, that could potentially shape the future workplace, however, it is just still too soon to know that for sure. Because we touched on it earlier - people want to be part of a team. They want to see their colleagues; they want to collaborate. People are social, they want to come into an office and spend time with their team, so I think that will remain the same. I think benching could potentially change but that would be based on different markets.

Jennifer H: I don't see much of a change in the footprint of offices growing because of this pandemic, what I do think is that we're going to continue to study ratios and percentages of employees being remote versus in the office. In my opinion on the square foot per person is that unless we really experience a global reduction in cost per square foot, I just don’t see that number being affected, especially in bigger cities, it just doesn’t economically make sense.

Eric: With a potential higher percentage of employees working from, I could see scenarios where we may be looking at what a reduction in a workplace footprint could be. It may come down to what is the value of the productivity versus savings on real estate, or vice versa. I don’t know if it will switch all the way from less personal space and just translate to other types of spaces, it seems there may be interest in some evaluations around reduction in space based on a new work behavior. The “right” environment to design for will continue to be a specific solution individualized to each company, its culture and the way its people work.

Heather: Eric, you bring up the interesting point of productivity. When helping clients with their workplace strategies, we are often tasked with improving productivity.  The first question I often have is, how are you currently measuring productivity today? We need to understand how it being measured in order to help improve it through design. I think companies will be taking a closer look at those productivity measures both in the office and remotely. I think we will see even more of a focus on studying how people work and those tools that support an even more efficient workflow.

John: Heather, you just touched on the great debate. We even have this discussion in our own firm. We've got people working from home that used to work in the office and what is the productivity and you know interestingly there was a two year study recently done at Stanford that yielded surprising results, and this was pre-pandemic. The study looked at the pros and cons of each environment; at home or in the office. The study revealed that people work a full shift or more at home. They have less distractions there, it's easier to concentrate. The attrition decreased by 50% among telecommuters. There were shorter breaks, there were fewer sick days, less time off and from a dollar standpoint the study found that employers were saving around $2,000 per employee on rent. There was one issue that was contrary to those findings. People felt too isolated. They needed the social interaction. It’s what we all described as our challenge; we desire that social interaction. The recommendation that he came away with was to fully endorse working from home but just do it for a few days a week so that people can come back to the office to connect.

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Question #6: How will companies approach wellness?

Heather: EUA has been great at promoting and supporting the health and wellness of our employees and if you haven’t checked it out yet, be sure to get involved in our EUA social wellness challenge. Do we see our clients also increasing wellness opportunities or changing the way wellness is supported on site for their employees?

Renee: I think the definition of wellness in general is highly personal and we need to be able to support that personality now more than ever.  While one person might find physical activity or fitness key to recharging, someone else, like Jen said, might find quiet meditative time more beneficial and I think each of these activities have very different spatial requirements and social constructs.  Providing a safe and inclusive choice for everyone will be important now more than ever before. We might see an increase in supporting more outdoor exercise or outdoor meditation vs. a traditional fitness center. Maybe leveraging multipurpose rooms to support mindfulness practice in the morning, yoga over lunch and kickboxing at the end of the day, where activities like that don’t require special equipment.

Heather: Do you see, kind of on that same note I've seen in some instances where companies will want to combine maybe a wellness room with a mother’s room. Do you see that idea maybe shifting a little bit in terms of a wellness room being a place where people go who aren't feeling that well?

Jennifer H: I think will we see an increase in mothers’ rooms completely devoid of a meditation or wellness room use. These uses, particularly a wellness room, would be a separate space. We may also start to see mechanisms for vetting an individual's quality of health as they walk through the door. Like a thermometer read or retinal read on the health of the individual coming into a building lobby or into a space. In other parts of the world they have been doing this for years and it may be something we start to see more of here. Levels of privacy, of course, will be a topic of conversation in any of these types of features introduced into the workplace.

Heather: Great, thank you everyone, we are planning to host another call with some of our experts in healthcare and workplace. I’m interested in seeing how wellness practices from healthcare, may make their way into a corporate workplace environment. More to come on this!

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Heather: This has been a great conversation! Thank you all. One final thought I wanted to add; I have talked about the pendulum swing in design before; at one point we were designing all private offices and then we swung hard to the other side for all open office design. I hope this pandemic doesn’t force us in yet another pendulum swing in terms of office design.  The key in all of this is there is not a one size fits all for any organization. It always goes back to the culture of that organization and how employees need to work to support the objectives of the company. I think there will now be an increased lens on people's safety and wellness when it comes to design, for sure. Thank you again team for your thoughts!

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EUA Workplace Design Experts