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What will the office of the post-COVID-19 future look like?

"People are going to think twice about giving somebody a hug. How quickly our mentality has changed."

When the working world returns to some semblance of post-pandemic normalcy, the look, feel, and people's attitudes toward the physical office workplace will be noticeably different.

Those hurriedly erected partitions between workstations will take on more of a permanent nature, the plexiglass barrier replaced with tempered glass and acrylic screens.

Fabric cubicle panels will be shunned due to their propensity to collect dust, dirt and germs in favour of hard laminate surfaces which can be more easily be wiped down.

That's some of the market intel that interior designers, office furniture dealers and manufacturers are gathering as the first wave of COVID-19 passes and employers prepare to recall their workers.

Gary Hierlihy, vice-president of sales and marketing for Three H Furniture Systems in New Liskeard, said reunited colleagues will have to suppress the natural urge to get close and congregate.

"I think the toughest thing is going to be trying to keep people from being social," he said.

"It's going to be really tough in an office environment to keep people separated."

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As a manufacturer of premium office furniture, Three H caters to a broad-based North American clientele ranging from furnishing your local dentist's office to hospitals, universities, and huge commercial head offices like GFL Environmental in Toronto.

Through their extensive dealer network, Three H also works with clients in some COVID-19 hotspots in the U.S., including locked-down New York City, where companies are already doing advance planning to outfit their offices in anticipation of the workforce returning.

"Right now the big push is retrofitting existing furniture," said Hierlihy.

Three H web-launched their OnGuard program this spring, offering protective plexiglass barriers and privacy screens to attach to their current line of open-office furniture.

While the company was forced to furlough more than half its factory staff due to low order volume and for health and safety reasons, Hierlihy sees oodles of new product potential as the impact of the coronavirus will totally make us rethink the way we work.

When office workers made the mad dash home at the outset of the pandemic in March to set up their laptops on dining room tables and in spare bedrooms, the company's initial hot take was, can they offer an upgraded line of home office furniture?

But that thinking was quickly eclipsed by the bigger issue of what will people be facing when they eventually return to the workplace?

As a direct response to the anticipated demand from clients, Three H has published a new online catalogue, the Future of Furniture, on how to outfit the workplace in the pandemic age with some new health and safety-oriented design elements.

"The three key topics are: spacing, distancing and safety."

Based on much of the safety literature Hierlihy has read, among the new requirements for workstations are panels that will need to have a minimum of 24 inches (61 centimetres) to provide adequate protection – either seated or standing – with 30 inches (76 centimetres) being ideal.

Three H's latest conceptuals of multi-station desk configurations show storage cabinets and wardrobe lockers acting as divisional spacers between desks to maintain the two-metre separation. Individual workspaces will be cordoned off with glass dividers and one-inch laminate end panels to provide further protection.

"Lawyers and executives have always wanted wood offices," he said."Well, laminates are going to quickly eclipse wood veneer products for even executive offices."

Hierlihy doesn't subscribe to the discussion that COVID-19 spells the death of the open-office concept or the much-despised cubicle.

Three H is promoting the redefined cubicle concept with divider panels raising up to 84 inches in height (213 centimetres), thus creating "offices without doors," instead of having to build permanent walls.

The idea came from a New York-based publishing client who wanted a budget-conscious solution to provide employees with a more private setting within an open environment that allowed people to better concentrate without the distraction of office chatter.

That was a design movement starting to take shape even before COVID-19 hit.

"I see that as a big trend and something for us to take into the market."

One design trend he does anticipate coming to an abrupt end is the "benching" application, a tendency among no-office-budget, high-tech startup companies to cram 20-somethings into tight 'collaborative' work surroundings.

While Three H Furniture expects to endure a tough 2020 as the North American economy recovers, Hierlihy is feeling bullish his company will rebound.

"No one wants to benefit from a bad situation, but hopefully when things get back to somewhat normal we have an opportunity to grow the business quite significantly."

One southern Ontario office designer suspects the new routines and social behaviours adopted from COVID-19 won't easily be forgotten.

"The handshake is gone," said a laughing Sheri Crawford, principal of X Design, a Hamilton- and Toronto-based interior design and project management firm.

"People are going to think twice about giving somebody a hug. How quickly our mentality has changed."

This spring, her firm had about 30 active projects immediately go on hold due to the lockdown.

But recently she's seeing a resurgence in activity with a steady stream of new requests for proposals from companies looking for office retrofits as the province begins relaxing confinement and gathering restrictions.

"We've been super busy just doing proposals and keeping track of government correspondence."

She predicts many returning workers will likely want both physical and psychological barriers between themselves and their co-workers to keep them safe from infection and give them peace of mind.

But the onus is on designers to create a workplace that remains a "great human experience" and not a prison cell environment, she said.

"Creative design thinking in this environment is going to make design firms really excel," said Crawford, the past president of the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario.

To spur the conversation, her team assembled an online pandemic workplace guide, populated with the most up-to-date information on COVID-19 and what in-office strategies, equipment and material will be needed to fight it.

"For one client with five floors, we did a visual space plan showing the six-foot distances, one-way corridors and what meeting rooms will look like."

Crawford paints a picture of the evolved office as having partitions erected around all desks and open-office stations.

Collaborative spaces will also be used in a different way.

She envisions multi-person conference rooms being refurbished into smaller two-person meeting rooms with adequate spacing provided, or being repurposed as technology rooms for online staff meetings.

The hot desking concept – where workers come in on a rotational basis to work at any random desk – is definitely out, she said. There will likely be assigned desks and equipment for everyone.

"There's going to be a lot more ownership of your real estate." she said. "It's your personal responsibility to sanitize your desk."

Crawford expects to see a greater embrace of touchless technologies, from office entries to washroom faucets.

"We haven't discredited the fact that when we are designing a post-COVID world, we're not only designing for physical safety, but we have to think about people's mental and cognitive capacity...because we also know people's mental health has been affected by this pandemic as well.

"Do you really want to go back to that cell environment? We spent 20 years removing that office cell. What can we do with that barrier to not make it feel like that horrible closed space to work in?"

The pandemic prompted Crawford's own firm to do a self-assessment of their own workplace and safety protocols.

Those employees with compromised immune systems, who wake up feeling slightly sick or regularly use public transit, could have the option of working from home. Couriers could deposit their deliveries in a drop-box, instead of entering the building.

In surveying her own staff, she found some prefer to stay home for family reasons. Others desire a return to routine.

"The reason they want to go back outweigh the reasons they want to stay home," she said. "For me, it was daily place association."

But from what commercial real estate brokers in the GTA are telling her, Crawford doesn't expect to see a surge of people returning to the office until later in the year or early 2021.

Mike Parent, the vice-president of prevention services at Workplace Safety North, said, unquestionably, "our workplaces are going to look different, and we're going to behave differently."

The 'new normal' will involve greater acceptance from employers for staff to work from home, increased use of online meeting platforms, and more installation of physical barriers to prevent micro-organisms from spreading.

He expects to see organizations imposing and enforcing social distancing rules, granting travel passes, and institutionalizing hygiene requirements such as frequent washing of hands, how employees use shared spaces, and a real push for the use of masks and gloves in situations where people are within two metres of each other.

"All indications are that pandemics come in waves and maybe we're coming through the first wave. The likely emergence of a second wave in the latter part of fall and into winter could hit us even harder if we don't take those precautions.

"When we come into the workplace, this is really in the control of the employer to set the tone and expectations, and make sure those expectations are being complied with." 

He recommends all employers establish a risk-based infectious disease preparedness and response plan in accordance with directives from the Ministry of Health and Public Health Ontario, and establish a hierarchy of control to manage all risks.

In his observations, Parent said he's been impressed at the adaptations made by society and how essential organizations have been able to continue operations within the restrictions imposed upon them. He particularly marvels at how easily people have gravitated toward virtual meeting platforms.

At Workplace Safety North, the sector-based health and safety association has historically presented all of its programming through in-class training.

An effort last year to migrate their learning modules online received "very little to no uptake" from clients, he said.

Within a month, the spring pandemic forced them to move to the virtual classroom and, inadvertently, allowed them to become adept and engaging with online delivery.

"We're seeing opportunities outside of our province," Parent said, with increased demand for mining and forestry safety programming coming from jurisdictions wanting formal training standards that they can cost-effectively jump into with little effort.

"Our organization has changed. In the new world we will see a blend of live syncronous training and some in-class."