As lockdowns are easing globally and people begin returning to the office, the challenge will be to rethink office spaces and provide employees with a safe workspace to navigate work life after the pandemic. This is especially crucial given the popularity of open-plan concepts in recent years to create a flexible and collaborative workplace, in which the lack of walls and ease of mobility within the office makes it difficult to contain the virus should an inflection break out in the workplace.
It has thus become more important than evert for organizations to safeguard employee health and wellbeing in the workplace. Alongside strict design guidelines for safe plydical distancing, wellness-based design is expected to become a global movement that will propel the design of the post-COVID workplace. It serves to strengthen public health through key design areas including lighting, air quality, biophilic design greenery and the safe integration of functional spaces. These are crucial aspects given the current COVID-19 climate where maintaining a safe and healthy workforce needs to be the priority.
This article highlights some health-focused design strategies to cultivate a safe work environment and construct a well-designed office, where staff can return to work with peace of mind.
Provide ample access to natural light
Lighting is one of the most integral features in creating an optimal office design. Lighting influences multiple facets of our work life from productivity and mental health to workplace safety. Natural lighting in particular, supports the body's circadian rhythm by allowing out internal clock to signal to the body and brain when to wake up or go to sleep. That is why organizations need to ensure staff have access to sufficient daylight to maximise alertness when working.
The easiest way to make sure everyone can get access to sufficient sunlight is to install floor to ceiling windows and use smart glass panels instead of translucent screen for private offices. This way natural lighting in particular, supports the body's circadian rhythm by allowing our internal clock to signal to the body and brain when to wake up or go to sleep. That is why organizations need to ensure staff have access to sufficient daylight to maximise alertness when working.
The easiest way to make sure everyone can get access to sufficient sunlight is to install floor to ceiling windows and use smart glass panels instead of translucent screens for private offices. This way natural light can travel unhindered throughout the office space. It might be a good idea to keep office furniture to a minimum or use compact instead of bulky equipment to prevent any obstruction to the flow of sunlight into the room. Consider magnifying the effects of lighting by using mirrors to effectively radiate sunlight throughout the space and choose furniture with bright or light colours whenever applicable.
Another way to amplify lighting in the office is to install more ceiling lights and use ambient lighting in place of LED panel lights. This is a variable solution if you have a cellular office layout, where light from the side windows cannot reach certain cubicles or desks located in more isolated areas of the room. Ambient lighting also emits warmth and reduces glare which is ideal for maintaining productivity throughout the day.
With COVID-19 still a tangible threat to public health, a flexible workspace where staff could traverse freely and easily from one end of the office to another is no longer a feasible design. In its place marks the introduction of cluster zoning within the office space. This involves grouping workstations into two or several zones using collaboration or expansion spaces as a safe distancing measure.
Cluster zoning allows interior designers to specify the density for the entire office space. This awards them greater flexibility in designing and placing structures within a cluster zone. Inside each cluster zone, individual workstations can be designed to provide each person with 4 square metres of space in the office which is in line with official social distancing guidelines. Having an allocated cluster zone helps designers determine the maximum number of people that can be in a particular space at any given time and plan each zone accordingly.
You can implement further measures for physical distancing in the office by placing signs around the workplace as a reminder for people to stay 1.5 metre away from one another. It is also useful to have wall or floor markings in shared spaces such as the pantry to highlight the designated distance.
Biophilic design is an architectural approach used to foster the inherent connection that people have with nature and green spaces. Incorporating manifestations of the natural environment or the outdoors into the workplace can help promote period of rest and focus for staff.
Most office workers spend a bulk of their time indoors working to meet targets and deadline which make for an extremely stressful office environment. Being surrounded by nature can relieve stress, boost productivity and lower blood pressure and heart rate. They have been scientifically proven to alleviate the pressures of work life while supporting one's physical and mental wellbeing. This has a positive impact on employee performance and day-to-day functioning.
There are numerous ways to integrate the beauty and benefits of plants into the workplace. This can range from an extensive vertical wall garden that features an intricately customised planting structure, to an overhead foliage for a canopy-like effect or even simple potted plants strategically positioned for exposure to sunlight. Recreating nature indoors is always a great way to improve the functional health benefits of the office space.
Another idea is to create a soothing outdoor area reminiscent of a natural retreat. This space can be located anywhere from a calm and conducive spot in the office to an outdoor patio. Decorate the area with trickling water features, essential oils, rustic furniture and palm plants to enhance the biophilic experience. You may also want to source for natural materials such as sustainable timber for your office fit-out to cultivate an eco-friendly environment.
Promote mobility and movement
The idea to encourage mobility and movement is to give people a reason to work around their workplace. This active design strategy involves centralising common and shared spaces including the pantry area, meeting rooms and collaboration lounges within a reasonable walking distance from individual workstations. It typically involves placing communal areas in a central location of the office instead of tucking them away in a corner. Printing a document from individual desks also requires individuals to get on their feet and walk to the photocopy room.
Some active design offices also feature sprawling, open staircases that are tactically situated in highly prominent and easily accessible places. This may be the central location in the main lobby, within the core office area where floor are interlinked or near other shared spaces like the conference room. They are intentionally designed to motivate employees to take the stairs instead of elevators.
Active design is often inculcated into workplaces to counter high rates of obesity and diseases among staff due to the lack of movement from sitting in front of the computer for long hours. This strategy is also highly applicable in light of the pandemic since elevators can also hold a selected number of people in accordance with physical distancing measures. Placing high-traffic communal areas like the pantry away from individual workstations also results in less exposure between staff and reduces the chances of infections being spread.
Enhance indoor air quality
A good way to improve indoor air quality is to include an integrated vertical circulation system for offices situated in high-rise buildings. Poorly ventilated offices can cause virus particles to linger in the air especially in more tightly enclosed indoor spaces. This results in significant human exposure to the unhealthy air particles.
The effects of poor airflow are evident in Seoul, where a coronavirus cluster was concentrated on just one floor of a 19-floor building. The contagion pattern suggests the rapid spread of infections within dense indoor areas with shared airspace and is perpetuated by improper air circulation - a common occurrence in modern building designs.
To tackle this concern, organization can explore the use of UX, or ultraviolet light and air purification technologies to eliminate virus in the air, to compensate for the lack of these systems in the building. Better filtration systems can increase the quality of recirculated air while UV lights destroy microorganisms in the atmosphere it comes into contact with. Well-ventilated areas have been proven to contain very low amount of virus compared with places that have poor air circulation, which can be attributed to increased air flow especially in high density, indoor spaces.
Transitioning back to the office
As there are not enough experts at this time when it comes to post-COVID office design, clients still need to implement good housekeeping practices; with the designers complementing these efforts with best practices incorporating wellness in office design. It is crucial that people continue to be diligent in keeping their distance from colleagues despite the urge to communicate in close proximity with one another. Maintain personal hygiene by washing your hands each time you are done using the toilet. Companies can facilitate this process by placing hand sanitiser at convenient locations throughout the office and ensuring that other hygiene products are regularly replenished. It is also important to bear in mind that the virus has yet to be fully contained, hence it is wise for organisation to retain some form of remote working until pandemic blow over.