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To help clients and customers navigate the post-COVID return to work, Allsteel has turned to the decades-old Japanese “mistake-proofing” approach of Poka-yoke. Developed in the 1960s by Japanese engineer Shigeo Shingo, the philosophy espouses “preventing and eliminating errors by making use of simple but effective tools and signals.” With that intention top of mind, the company developed guidelines – along with products and accessories – to ease the transition back to a new office environment for employees. Three key aspects were identified and addressed: user experience (how employees feel about and adapt to newly established health and safety policies), spatial effectiveness (the use and management of the physical workspace to keep employees protected through mistake-proofing concepts), and distributed work (striking a balance between different workspaces and the nature of the work being done while supporting workers).

Allsteel’s Rise modular seating, designed by IDA Design and Rainlight Design Studio. An expansion was set to be launched at NeoCon this year

As director of design Amanda Gates notes, “proximity and collaboration are still key to productivity,” but how can this be done while social distancing needs to be adhered to? Right now, it’s all about making small changes, like considering how furniture – its shape, design, orientation, layering – can be used to create identifiable physical boundaries and dedicated zones. 

Steve Verbeek, Vice President of Design + Innovation at Teknion, emphasizes a stronger need for workspace resiliency, the de-densification of floor plates and a focus on wellness that goes beyond biophilia as top elements to consider. “How do we deal with physical space now? How will collaboration and conference rooms work?” These are some of the questions that he and the Teknion team have been asking, recognizing that the immediate future will require digestible solutions – visual signals to indicate cleanliness, for example. Tied to that, Verbeek projects a possible return to “ownership and personalization of individual workspaces” so that workers are comfortable knowing no one else has touched their space.

Many of these aspects are addressed in the brand’s recently published guide highlighting planning and future layouts that take into account physical distancing while still allowing for meeting and collaboration. “The office is still relevant, even if it’s not what it was before, and face-to-face communication is still very valuable,” says Verbeek. According to the guide, some solutions to overcome as people transition back to the office include employers considering alternating on-site workdays with at-home ones to help decrease density in the office, installing end and lateral screens (in varying heights) to workstations for privacy and separation, providing individuals with personal-use cleaning supplies and storage and using armless chairs upholstered in bleach-cleanable polyurethane fabrics to address cleanliness concerns, among other recommendations. 

The hiSpace Quick Connect workstation

In May, Teknion reengineered its height-adjustable hiSpace Quick Connect tables to better accommodate workers as they transition back from at-home offices to shared-space setups: A new “connection kit” allows the tables to be assembled in less than five minutes, softer profiles conceal cables and cords and sophisticated software allows for seamless positioning adjustments.

Sam Dunn, co-founder and CEO of Robin, a scheduling, mapping and workplace management tool developer that counts Herman Miller, Shopify, Peloton and Casper as clients, feels that the “return to the office will see a shift in functionality” by, for example, reducing the daily in-office capacity to a lower percentage than pre-COVID attendance and/or a rotation of attendance throughout the work week. To facilitate the reduced numbers, companies will need to determine what type of project or meeting is best served in person and what can be successfully done remotely. “Remote working does not mean always working from home but the flexibility to do both,” Dunn says. As for how an office is actually used, changes will likely occur. Employers will be responsible for “earning the enthusiasm needed from their employees to return” by establishing visual cues that clearly indicate when an area has been cleaned and concise wayfinding to safely navigate common areas and to create an overall sense of health and safety throughout.  

Humanscale, meanwhile, recognizes that for most companies a complete redesign is not a realistic measure in the immediate future and instead recommends making easy-to-implement modifications to create a safer work environment. Along with providing employees with PPE and sanitization stations, it also recommends reducing daily density to facilitate proper distancing and providing employees with their own dedicated workstation. While Humanscale’s product roster has always been robust, it quickly responded to the need for safer workspaces with the introduction of a new design that offers personal protection along with visual and acoustical privacy. 

Humanscale’s WellGuard Separation Panels introduce a highly adaptable functionality to workstations

“For saturated desking areas, separation panels are essential to reduce airflow across individual workstations,” David Wong, Vice President of Product Development Design & Engineering, says of the WellGuard Separation Panels. The plastic resin (PETG) panels are durable, customizable and easy to install at new and existing workstations. Available in six mounting options (permanent or removable), the panels come in clear or frosted finishes and will not crack, discolour or degrade, even after heavy-duty sanitization. The recyclable PETG also has half the lifecycle carbon footprint of acrylic. Included in the system are Felted PET Panels in light or dark grey that – in addition to safety benefits – aid in the reduction of visual distractions, peripheral interruptions and reduce noise distribution. Both formats are available in a variety of widths and heights to meet a variety of demands. 

At San Francisco-based customizable furniture-maker Pair, says co-founder Brian Wilson, the “common question we’re battling now is, ‘How do you break up previously dense clusters and give people more breathing space, literally?’” In response, the brand recently realized its Saltine line of partitions as an example of their “hyper-responsive and agile approach” to product development during this time. Conceived within days at the request of a client, the adjustable screens simply clip onto the side of a desk and are made from easy-to-clean materials: glass, acrylic, PET and laminates. 

Pair recently launched its Saltine dividers in a rapid response to the current pandemic

Now part of Pair’s permanent collection, Saltine supports the need to get back to the office and feel safe and productive while there. “We also know it’s not all about screens,” continues Wilson. “It has to be about holistic design. New actions, processes and procedures being put in place are as much for mental health as for physical health.” To that end, Wilson sees adjustments being made to allow for more generous spaces that accommodate distancing, some enclosures for individuals and a rethinking to how meeting rooms and other shared spaces will be finished by employing easily cleanable polyesters and anti-microbial surfaces, all to give employees an appropriate feeling of safety and security. And he is in agreement with the number of in-office employees going down, at least for the time being. “The office is a vital place for collaboration, culture and for boundaries between work and home,” he says, “I think we will see more developments in home/remote collaboration technologies.” 

Healing Spaces: How the Office May Look Post-Pandemic

From new layouts to re-engineered furniture and staggered hours, the workplace of the future is being designed on the fly.

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