Office Design After COVID-19 Vaccine: Will Employees Still Work Apart?

Now that Pfizer has already started rolling out their COVID-19 vaccines, people are becoming hopeful again and excited that life can finally go back to normal. Many are looking forward to the reopening of schools, offices, movie theatres, but most of all, they’re most eager to be able to go out without face masks and social distancing.

But will that really be the scenario after people get their shots? Most likely not, says Lisa Lee, a public health expert specializing in infectious disease epidemiology and public health ethic, as well as the associate vice president for research and innovation at Virginia Tech. According to her, there is no data yet that proves whether the vaccines can prevent people from contracting COVID-19. What is only proven is that it stops people from getting very ill from the virus. Hence, vaccinated people may still be carriers, and pass on the virus to the vulnerable.

Simply put, the vaccine will not immunize us from COVID-19, meaning we still have to wear masks and practice social distancing after receiving the shot. Those protocols can only end if Pfizer vaccines or other vaccines have been proven to prevent infection.

That said, this means that offices will have to keep placing work desks apart next year. And according to industry experts, the normal office design may not return for the next 100 years.

Designing for a 100-Year Flu

Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, director for the U.S. Institute for Health in the Built Environment, says that the need for architects to prioritize human health while designing an office space is new. They’ve always designed buildings for 100-year floods, and now, they have to design for a 100-year flu.

Such is the case because there will surely be another epidemic or pandemic in the future or just another flu season. By that time, health emergencies will no longer be an unprecedented crisis. Hence, offices should get ahead and be designed for that new reality, according to the co-founder of design consultancy firm Clinicians for Design, Eve Edelstein.

in door office

More Outdoor Air In

Public health officials agree that one of the most effective ways to control the spread of a virus is to increase the amount of outdoor air that goes into a room. And that can be done as simply as by cracking a window open.

However, most office buildings have windows that cannot be opened. That’s because tight air seals in windows are one of the main strategies to be energy-efficient. So architects are now devising ways on how to allow outdoor air in without shooting up energy consumption.

Van Den Wymelenberg suggests a solution, and that is to use a type of window design that’s already available in Europe, which has a mechanical heat exchange system concealed inside the sill. It cools or warms the outdoor air as it enters a building. He also recommends that a building’s occupants should be able to keep the bad air out if its quality is worse than the indoor air so that smog and smoke won’t contaminate a space.

Partitions Will Stay

Open-concept offices and co-working spaces became immensely popular in recent years. While they don’t need to be redesigned into the old-fashioned, cubicle-filled space, partitions in the form of “sneeze guards” will remain.

These partitions will still be in between work desks, office storage solutions, and spread around in common areas. In fact, in the long-term, we may see some offices designed like a hospital. There would be hygiene stations, health screening points, automated doors, signage and wayfinding instructions, reduced stools and seats, and standing-only stations.

Overall, the vaccine may improve our situation and give us a chance to go back to normal, but new office designs will likely focus on preventing diseases. So from now on, as per the experts, hygiene will be put at the heart of workplace planning.

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