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Resilient Design is Good Design: Making the Case for Adaptable Design Strategies throughout the Workplace

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This article originally published in FMJ Magazine May/June 2021 edition

Facility managers and company leaders are being tasked with the challenge of anticipating the unexpected, providing office spaces that function not only in a reactionary mode, such as during a pandemic, but also proactively and intentionally for the various unpredictable needs of the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a disruptor for how the business world views office space, provoking designers to re-envision their approach towards workplace planning. While the CDC’s recommended six-foot social distance protocol may temporarily apply, this guideline is not a vetted approach to effectively planning a workplace for the long-term.

For most office-based industries, access, and frequency of working in the physical office space dropped drastically during the pandemic, further demonstrating how the distance precaution is not the new basis for workplace design. Even while the number of remote workers has temporarily increased from 17% in 2019 to 44% in 2020[1], the workplace as a physical support is here to stay as a vital tool to provide an inclusive setting that meets a wide variety of people’s needs for connection, feeling a sense of belonging, fostering culture, supporting collaboration and spurring innovation.

Heavily used shared building spaces, such as lobbies, restrooms and amenities, need to be flexible on a day-to-day basis. These high touch zones require the adaptability to accommodate forthcoming changes over the months and years ahead, whatever they may be.

The Importance of Place for Social Connection

Social connection plays a large role in employee happiness levels. According to the Harvard Business Review, “close work friendships boost employee satisfaction by 50%[2]” and the University of Oxford study sites that, “people are more productive when happy[3].” When employees are happy, productivity, and as a result the bottom line, is increased, so everyone wins. One of the major activities coworkers have repeatedly stated they miss from the physical office is the face-to-face social interactions that occur fluidly, and organically just from passing by one another or stopping by a coworker’s desk in between scheduled meetings. Moving forward it will be important to provide work environments where people want to be together and can do so in a safe and secure manner. To attract workers back into the office, the workplace will need to be re-positioned as a desirable ‘destination’ for employees. But before that can happen, it needs to appeal to the employee’s desire for safety and well-being.

Reassurance That Work Will Be Physically and Emotionally Safe

Over the past decade, the discussion of office design around the globe has pivoted to heavily emphasize employee well-being. On the building side this may entail companies and building owners following industry best practices, such as those made measurable by the WELL Building Standard Certification. In our current landscape related to the human side of the equation, it surrounds the conscious regard for the mental health of an employee as he/she returns to the office. Even pre-pandemic, research had revealed a heightened importance on creating a physically and emotionally safe environment for office employees. In 2015, Google studied its employees to determine “what makes a good team.” Researchers found that psychological safety was the most important quality that determined a team’s success[4]. Navigating this path forward, there will be a heightened emphasis design-wise not on what can be done for now, but what can be done with office design that has resilience and fortitude for the future.

Resilient Design is Simply Good Design

Resilient design is flexible and adaptable, inclusive and durable. Good design withstands time and meets a company's evolving and larger picture needs well into the future. No matter what the buzzword of the moment is, essentially resilient design embraces a people-centered mindset, welcoming an organization’s many individual differences. Resilient design incorporates tools that offer people ease of mobility and choice. This concept can be layered with three basic, interrelated facets of a work environment – people, place and technology – to help business leaders integrate their policies, infrastructure and tools to create spaces that inspire employees to perform their best work.

Adaptable Program and Infrastructure

When approaching design for shared high use areas, it is important to start with the infrastructure of a space. With a focus on accepted use protocols while maintaining cleanliness throughout, facility owners and business leaders can then plan appropriate strategies that align policies, program, and company culture. As the point of entry, vestibules and reception areas should play an active role as filters for the office. Smart building technologies such as facial scanners within the entry vestibule can be integrated into the interior architectural detailing. In the lobby, a digital check-in procedure could be used to minimize contact points. Part of a building’s technology strategy could include digital display monitors for wayfinding and communication; this flexible signage allows employees and visitors real-time visibility to an organization’s procedures and policies.

Adaptable programming integrates various scales of room sizes that serve multiple purposes. Large rooms can be divided with screens or mobile partitions to allow training, conference, and fitness classrooms, or subdivided for war room-style project spaces. Smaller rooms can flex for various functions ranging from wellness or mother's rooms, sensory rooms, prayer rooms, 2–3-person huddle enclaves or individual focus rooms. Thoughtfully dispersing these spaces throughout a floor plate increases usability for unanticipated needs. One example of this flexibility is a small command/security room near a building entry that can be used as a screening room to assess various risk factors prior to visitors entering the office. This same space can serve an alternate purpose as a meeting space for new recruits.

Additional examples of adaptable design within the building are floor plans that include thoughtfully located walls that provide enclosures to serve various purposes; private offices that can flex as shared meeting rooms or hoteling spaces; and communicating stairs that promote walking versus elevator use. In mid- and high-rise construction, a long-term solution may be using concierge style elevator call technology, such as a mobile app or facial recognition to allow for a touch-less elevator experience.

A well-integrated infrastructure also includes a properly designed HVAC system with ventilation and air filtration that supports healthy air quality. Relevant components that allow ease of adaptability include an exposed or easily accessed distribution network of ducts, underfloor air distribution systems and flexible ductwork. Spaces with access to daylight allow natural transmission of airflow and lighting, providing a passive solution that aids in increasing general workplace environmental efficiency. These types of solutions outfit a workplace with resilience through longevity and durability.

The Importance of Mobility

A key factor to consider in the broader scheme of office space planning is the programmatic degree of flexibility needed for each area. At an optimized level of efficiency, an adaptable space allows end user reconfigurability - this means furniture and communication technology tools can be moved around easily, without special tools or layers of administrative permission. Not having to hire professional installation specialists during office hours spares employees invaluable downtime, while saving the company the cost of labor to perform the moves. On a smaller scale, mobile communication tools such as digital display monitors and whiteboards position offices to be nimble and anticipate changing needs throughout a space. These mobile tools can also be beneficial from a financial standpoint, since a single mobile monitor moving from one space to another could, in theory, replace the need for several fixed or wall-mounted monitors.

Choice of Work Setting is Key for Flexible Design 

Having a distinct zone dedicated to flexibility in the workplace introduces another variable that business and team leaders can explore: the adoption of a free address strategy. At first mention, perhaps this sounds contrary to the current hyper-focus on cleanliness and mitigating infectious disease spread. But, when appropriate cleaning protocols are implemented, these shared work areas offer a cleaner workspace than typical one-to-one assigned workstations, as shown in the WeWork Cleaning suggestions.[5] If companies apply a shift in mindset, free address work zones can prevent workers from hoarding “stuff” because of the nature of frequent shifts in location. To aid in storing personal belongings beyond daily needs, lockable storage units, such as wardrobe style lockers or mobile pedestals, can easily be designed into office plans. This offers people a sense of connection to a "home base" office while still allowing them to move around and choose their work setting and location throughout the day. At the same time, the remote workforce permeating many sectors today needs to be considered. Company leaders can leverage technology in the built environment to keep their distributed workers feeling connected, whether virtually or in person, to support remote collaboration and enhance employee engagement.

Inclusive Workplace Design and Policy

At its core, a resilient and inclusive workplace brings the human experience central to the focus of design. As businesses and workloads ebb and flow, an inclusive space will remain functional and supportive for all workers, regardless of the fluctuating mix of employees. Endorsing Universal Design principles[6] entails designing space, details and policies that include people with diverse abilities. Restrooms are one place equity can be addressed. In 1987, a California state senator introduced legislation to guarantee the state’s women more toilets; since then, other cities and states have joined the cause of “potty parity.”[7] A solution to bathroom equity concerns is introducing all gender restrooms, something that has already surfaced in some North American markets and commonly accepted in many European and Asian countries for decades. A multi-user, all gender restroom layout provides flexibility by offering the ability to partition off between stalls depending on current occupancy and mix of gender. This version not only accommodates the variance in distribution of some headcounts, like manufacturing settings where historically men’s restroom quantity needs outnumber women’s, but also enhances attitudes of equity for transgender and non-binary individuals.

Facilities and companies need to design for diversity and equity not just in ethnicity and age, but to consider many facets of inclusivity within the larger picture of workplace design: neurodiverse personalities, hearing or visually impaired individuals, virtual or remote workers, and employees with disabilities, to name a few. By conscientiously focusing on inclusivity in design and not just ‘checking a box’ or isolating specific areas, designers can truly incorporate universal design considerations that avoid alienating users, responding to individual differences and a variety of abilities throughout a facility.

Anticipate the Unexpected

So, how do facility managers focus on resilient design for a successful, meaningful workplace experience today? Business leaders need to work with a cross-sectional team of personnel from Human Resources, Information Technology and Operations to ensure their attention is people centered. Bringing workers back in person to connect and thrive requires a conscious effort to curate an environment of choice through a variety of flexible work settings that can evolve over time. Many of the types of jobs and roles needed in the future haven’t been forecasted and don’t even exist today, so anticipating and planning for the unexpected may become the theme of the future. Time will truly tell when designing for what's next, but the ability and willingness to proactively incorporate flexibility into workspaces can be the key to good (and resilient) design for an adaptable future.

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[1] Department, Published by Statista Research, and Jan 22. “Remote Work Frequency before/after COVID-19 2020.” Statista, January 22, 2021. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1122987/change-in-remote-work-trends-after-covid-in-usa/.

[2] Camille Preston, PhD. “Council Post: Promoting Employee Happiness Benefits Everyone.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, December 13, 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2017/12/13/promoting-employee-happiness-benefits-everyone/?sh=44436976581a.

[3] University of Oxford. “Happy Workers Are 13% More Productive.” Phys.org. October 25, 2019. https://phys.org/news/2019-10-happy-workers-productive.html.

[4] Stieg, Cory. “'Psychological Safety' at Work Improves Productivity–Here Are 4 Ways to Get It, According to a Harvard Expert.” CNBC. CNBC, October 5, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/10/05/why-psychological-safety-is-important-at-work-and-how-to-create-it.html

[5] Hogarty, Steve. “The Best Way to Clean Your Office Desk during the Coronavirus.” Ideas, October 9, 2020. https://www.wework.com/ideas/worklife/the-best-way-to-clean-your-office-desk-during-coronavirus.

[6] http://universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design/The-7-Principles/

[7] Pinsker, Joe. “The Long Lines for Women's Bathrooms Could Be Eliminated. Why Haven't They Been?” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, January 23, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/01/women-men-bathroom-lines-wait/580993/.

This article was also supported by Jill Schutts, a Project Specialist : Architecture and Interior Design in EUA's workplace studio.

Jen Singson, AIA, IIDA, NCARB
Senior Design Architect : Interiors

Jen is a Senior Design Architect with focus in Interiors in the Workplace Studio at EUA. Jen designs inspiring and engaging spaces for her clients. In her free time, she enjoys Pilates and yoga.

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