COVID-19 Prompts a Rethinking of Commercial Space Design

Minimizing the spread of contagions has taken center stage as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, prompting businesses to take another look at space design and the consideration of interventions large and small to help make people safer when they are finally able to return to work. However, since businesses are financially strapped right now and being very selective on where capital is being invested, it is unlikely that any costly upgrades will be pursued in the immediate future until it can be determined how their business will be impacted according to reports.

Office: Although in the long term cities might regulate how many people can be in a specific office space, some initial options to create more space between workers to accommodate proper social distancing could include rotating days and hours for employees to come into the office, or having an increased percentage of employees work remotely from home. What has been described as the “global work-from-home experiment” has reportedly provided the largest case study of working from home in history; and aside from the research potential, reports suggest that if “employers see that it’s more of less business as usual, it could make them rethink their remote policies,” except in those industries where collaboration and group communication are essential.

However, some more permanent options may come into play as part of office buildout designs moving forward.  Over the past several years office space layouts have been designed to increase workspace density as the minimum area allotted per employee shrank from the one-time average of about 250 square feet to about 150 square feet; and while it has yet to be seen if changes will lead to an increase or decrease of office size requirements in the wake of social distancing, several additional options to consider as part of space design have been suggested.

  • Barriers between desks can be installed, with some office furniture makers already producing barriers that feature shelves and function as storage for desk users; or as another option, barriers that can slide up and down, thereby allowing workers to talk to each other and then slide the barrier up when they want privacy or are worried about germs.
  • Healthcare materials such as fixtures made of copper, which has reportedly “long-documented antibacterial properties, or the use of “antimicrobial coatings” such as the reportedly 3D-printed fake shark skin recently developed by scientists that research shows reduces up to 80% of bacteria on high-touch surfaces in hospitals, and could be used similarly in offices.
  • Hands-free technology for toilets, faucets, and even bathroom stalls.
  • Voice-activated elevator technology already in use in Japan, or the more common feature of “swiping or waving a pre-programmed card in front of a reader that takes workers to a specific floor.
  • Building-within-a-building entry to increase tenant entry points and help reduce potential crowding and bottlenecks in lobby by opening service entrances to office workers and converting retail or loading docks to new lobbies.
  • Pre-registrations of visitors with passes sent to their phones and then swiped through touch-free turnstiles or readers.
  • Air circulation in older buildings that rely on recycled indoor air due to inoperable windows can be improved in the short term through the installation of windows that can open; and in the long-term by installing mechanical ventilation systems that circulate more fresh air from outside.
  • Creating a directional flow of people through the office to decrease the chance of people running into each other.

Food Retailers

  • Fast-casual restaurants may move away from the reportedly popular open kitchens shielded only by low glass barriers, to a more enclosed ghost kitchen, as well as the increased preference of casual lunches being ordered online in advance for quick pick-up to eliminate customers standing in long lines to wait for food.
  • Supermarkets have already begun limiting the number of people who can enter, by requiring customers to line up outside; as well as placing signage to make aisles one-way, so that customers aren’t passing each other going in opposite directions. In addition, there may be an increase in touchless check-out technology, allowing shoppers to purchase automatically detected items in-store without any additional human interaction. However, it has reportedly been further commented that “if cities and states decide grocery stores encourage viral spread, changes to layouts and occupancy may be required by law in the future.”