When in March of 2020 Bay Area officials became the first in the country to institute a stay-at-home order in response to COVID-19, Studio O+A quickly put together a team of researchers, designers and communicators to assess the pandemic's impact on work environments and devise a strategy for moving forward. The result of that effort is: "A Toolkit for the Times: O+A's Guide for Healthy Workplaces".
This guide represents the work of O+A's best planners and designers to apply what we know now to a work environment that everyone agrees will be radically altered. We continue to update this toolkit in accordance with CDC guidelines as they undergone evolving iterations. The ideas presented here are necessarily based on a wellness consensus established over the early months of the pandemic—the need for social distancing, face coverings, heightened hygiene, improved circulation. Our team has looked at every aspect of the workplace from the parking lot to the in-house café and determined how these spaces may be adapted to a post-COVID-19 reality.
At 170 pages, O+A's Toolkit is a comprehensive analysis of how work environments must change to meet the challenges of a pre-vaccine economy. It includes both guidelines for office design and for protocols to make the workplace safer. O+A's research team spoke to ER doctors, epidemiologists, architects, psychologists, sociologists, furniture and systems manufacturers and experts in fields as wide-ranging as air filtration and elevator design. Sifting through a welter of evolving and often contradictory information, the design team created annotated space plans for every aspect of a multi-space environment.
O+A's Toolkit begins in the parking lot and proceeds through the lobby to offices and space typologies of every stripe. With guidelines for landlords and tenants alike, it addresses technical design issues—placement of workstations, meeting room alterations, kitchen design, etc.—as well as routine behaviors likely to become the new normal. Will we change our shoes entering the office? Probably. Will we wear our masks full time? Definitely.
Typically O+A has not been content to assemble a purely technical guide. Drawing on its long-held belief that every environment is an experience, the company has shaped its Toolkit to address what the reality of working in these spaces will be. For a post-pandemic workplace to be successful it will not only have to be safe, but feel safe to the people who occupy it. O+A's Toolkit imagines what a first day back might feel like, looks at the psychology of environmental design and accompanies each space category with real-world suggestions for making it work. We broke it down into several categories, making guidelines holistic, yet targeted based on building set up, unique needs and overall use.
Returning to Work
You will find specifics about workstation placement and conference room protocols—specifics that will be updated regularly as new data become available—but the heart of our effort is to identify how the experience of work will change. A built environment always exists on two levels: as a physical space and as a human experience. Now more than ever the trust and confidence we bring into a workplace will be as important as its interior architecture. The challenge ahead for landlords, tenants and designers alike is to find a way forward that builds that trust and rewards it with a safe environment. It's a challenge we will face for some time to come. Of that we may be certain.
The Psychology behind COVID -19
Psychologists tell us our opinion of a person is formed almost instantly in the first seconds of acquaintance. This is likely the case also with buildings—particularly in the era of COVID-19. The outside approach is a first indication of an owner's commitment to wellness and security and a tenant's commitment to the safety of their staff. That first glance outside must inspire confidence for the spaces inside to have a chance of feeling safe.
Wayfinding & Navigation
Before COVID-19 the purpose of a lobby beyond its logistical function of getting people into the building and on their way to the proper floor, was to welcome them and communicate some relevant cultural message: cutting-edge tech headquarters or eco-friendly LEED certified facility or Art Deco gem. Post-COVID-19 those messages are still important, but more important is the message: safe building.
Masks, gloves, six foot separations, walk this way, walk that way—the restrictive measures required to keep a building safe also add to its users' stress levels. Of equal importance then are design features that communicate the smile behind the mask. Since we can't know how long these COVID-19 mitigation policies will be necessary we must work to make "the new normal" as comfortably normal as possible. Amenities can help in that effort.
Products & Technology
Now more than ever, building maintenance, trash and cleaning practices, proper ventilation, heating and cooling, back-up power and connectivity are crucial. A building that is demonstrably healthy reassures occupants that their personal health is secure. New technologies are also lending themselves to that reassurance offering a range of products that were created to regulate safety and prevent the spread of germs.
When we are finally able to get back to the office, we're going to have a lot to remember. Wear your mask, wash your hands, keep your distance, don't touch that orange! (Actually, that orange is probably going away). Adapting to a new normal in our old work environments is going to take some getting used to. As part of O+A's ongoing effort to develop design strategies for the post-pandemic workplace the graphic artists at our Brand Studio have created helpful, friendly reminders of all the stuff we will need to keep in mind as we're coming back to work.
Sumptuously illustrated by O+A's graphic design team, the Toolkit includes an artful gallery of public health posters—Chin Up (But Keep It Covered)—and witty visualizations of our brave new workplace. Because the pandemic story is ever-changing, the Toolkit will be an organic document, updated regularly with new research findings and product information. A Volume II Toolkit assessing the long-term impact of the crisis and what work will be when the pandemic is behind us is presently underway in O+A's scattered (though surprisingly productive) work-from-home studios.