Offices after COVID: Wider hallways, fewer desks

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The coronavirus already changed the way we work. Now it’s changing the physical space, too.

Many companies are making adjustments to their offices to help employees feel safer as they return to in-person work, like improving air circulation systems or moving desks further apart. Others are ditching desks and building more conference rooms to accommodate employees who still work remotely but come in for meetings.

Architects and designers say this is a time of experimentation and reflection for employers. Steelcase, an office furniture company based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says its research indicates half of global companies plan major redesigns to their office space this year.

“This year caused you to think, maybe even more fundamentally than you ever have before, ‘Hey, why do we go to an office?’” said Natalie Engels, a San Jose, California-based design principal at Gensler, an architecture firm.

Not every company is making changes, and Engels stresses that they don’t have to. She tells clients to remember what worked well — and what didn’t — before the pandemic.

But designers say many companies are looking for new ways to make employees feel safe and invigorated at the office, especially as a labor crunch makes hiring more difficult.

That’s what drove food and pharmaceutical company Ajinomoto to overhaul the design of its new North American headquarters outside Chicago last year.

Ajinomoto’s employees returned to in-person work in May to a building with wider hallways and glass panels between cubicles, to give them more space and try to make them feel more secure. To improve mental health, the company transformed a planned work area into a spa-like “relaxation room” with reclining chairs and soft music. A test kitchen is wired for virtual presentations in case clients don’t want to travel. And a cleaning crew comes through twice a day, leaving Post-it notes to show what’s been disinfected.

“Maybe it’s over the top, but maybe it provides comfort to those that have sensitivities to returning to an in-person work environment,” said Ryan Smith, the executive vice president of Ajinomoto North America. Smith estimates 40% of the new headquarters design changed due to COVID.

Shobha Surya, an associate manager of projects and sales at Ajinomoto, is energized by the space.

“The office gives you a balance of work and home life,” she said. “You are more focused here and don’t have any distractions.”

Surya said she’s also thrilled to be working alongside her co-workers again.

She’s not alone. Surveys show the thing employees miss most about office work is socializing and collaborating with colleagues, said Lise Newman, workplace practice director at architecture firm SmithGroup. Companies are trying to encourage that rapport by building more social hubs for employees. Some mimic coffee houses, with wood floors, booth seating and pendant lamps.

“Companies are trying to create the sense that this is a cool club that people want to come into,” Newman said.

Steelcase has divided one of its lobbies into cozy meeting spaces of varying sizes, separated by plant-filled partitions. Mobile video monitors can be wheeled in so that people working remotely can be included in discussions.

But after a year of working from home, some employees crave privacy, so Steelcase added more glassed-in booths for private calls and cocoon-like cubicles with small sliding doors.

Mark Bryan, a senior interior designer with Columbus, Ohio-based M+A Architects, expects a more fluid office culture in the future, with different places to work on any given day. Introverts might choose a small, private room; extroverts, a table in the office café.

Some office changes reflect a new commitment to hybrid work. Valiant Technologies, which provides tech support and other services to businesses, is letting its employees work primarily at home but has them reserve a desk for the days they want to come to the office. The New York company has removed rows of desks and put more space between the remaining ones. Employees leave their keyboard, mouse and headsets in lockers.

Megan Quick, a sales associate with Valiant, said she appreciated the company allowing her to ease back into office life this month.

“It will take a lot of time for us to readjust,” she said. “Valiant letting us set our pace for returning makes me feel safe.”

Not every design change will stick. Last summer, when Steelcase started bringing back some workers, they pushed tables in the cafeteria far apart from each other and only allowed one person per table. It made the space so depressing that no one wanted to sit there, Steelcase CEO Jim Keane said.

“An important lesson is that, yes, it has to be safe, but also has to be inspiring,” he said. “People are actually going to expect more from offices in the future.”

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