What had been a growing trend toward a more distributed workforce has now blossomed into the more distributed workplace as companies implement a variety of strategies to keep employees healthy and safe in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Shelter-in-place edicts forced many employees to work from home, whether they were prepared to or not.

Now as businesses gradually reopen, some workers are reluctant to return to the office, and for those who do, workspaces have to be modified to encourage social distancing and ensure the physical environment is as sanitary as possible. Designers are being called on to adapt the work environment to the new normal on two fronts, in commercial spaces and at home.

Over the past several decades, with the growth of the knowledge economy, office spaces increasingly have been designed to encourage social interaction, collaboration and teamwork. The very design strategies that made those environments more productive, such as more open work areas and places to gather, have now made them potentially hazardous. Employers are having to rethink how and where to deploy their staff in order to best balance business needs and personnel safety.

Employee health and safety have become the top business priority, and the design community has responded by providing guidance and strategies for adapting and improving current workspaces to make them more suitable for limited social interaction.

Commercial furniture manufacturers Steelcase and Herman Miller, as well as leading A&D firm Perkins Eastman, have each produced research-based white papers and articles that describe how changes to space layouts, wayfinding and traffic flow, work stations, and ventilation equipment, combined with non-touch technologies and specialized materials and surfaces that are germ-resistant and easier to keep clean, can allow current workspaces to function safely and productively.

Designers also are thinking about how new or renovated office spaces may have to change in the future. A growing trend in recent years has been to make the office environment more homelike in order to reduce workplace stress and encourage employees to remain onsite for longer hours.

In an article for Building Design + Construction, Elizabeth Van Goeler, principal and interior designer with A&D firm Sasaki, says she foresees a gradual decline in “resimercial” aesthetics and a return to a more defined separation of home and workplace.

Others see larger open work and gathering spaces being transformed into multiple smaller spaces and clusters, such that each cluster might have its own common/lunch and fitness areas. Another scenario envisions different entities being scattered around in smaller office spaces in different buildings, somewhat like private co-working spaces.

Van Goeler observes that employers and employees are already experiencing the limitations of remote working, and that more employees will want to return to the workplace when they feel it is safe to do so. In the meantime, though, many of those workers are having to make do with less-than-ideal working conditions at home.

A survey conducted by Steelcase in April found only half of respondents working from home normally sat at a desk. Others used a dining table, a couch, a bed or a kitchen counter, even in some cases outdoor furniture. In addition, they were challenged by distractions, such as noise, a lack of privacy, and physical discomfort.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that home offices are among the most requested remodeling and renovation projects at present. Spokane, Washington, interior designer Tammie Ladd, interviewed by The Inlander, states, "I would say there is a lot more awareness of how an office is designed within a home — and clients to a degree have been very involved in this desire for dual function.”

Designers are working with clients to create functional and healthy places to work that blend more seamlessly with the rest of the home, including helping them to determine where is the best location in the home, depending on the type of work they do and the current design of the home.

While some of these modifications may be temporary, many experts believe that, as a consequence of the pandemic, workspaces will be very different in the years ahead than they have been in recent decades. Designers will be an integral part of creating new solutions and new aesthetics to make those paces meet the wellness and business needs of employees, wherever they are working from.