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  • Writer's pictureSusanne Desbrow

How the Pandemic Affected Workplace Design Needs

Updated: Jan 5

The last 2 months has unfortunately affected all of us. Most of us are at home most of the time, only venturing out for groceries and to walk the dog. We all miss seeing families and friends. For us parents we now are juggling work and home schooling. Some of us are thriving, whereas others are struggling. Whatever our situation, I am sure we are all looking forward to more freedom and wanting to return to some sort of normality.

A father sits on the floor beside his toddler holding a newborn and attempting to have a Zoom call on a laptop placed on the floor. It's a chaotic scene.

Alberta is one of the hardest hit provinces in Canada. Prior to Covid19 Calgary's overall vacancy rate Downtown sat at 24.2 per cent, according to Avison Young's market report for the fourth quarter of 2019. Commercial real estate faces unprecedented new challenges. With unemployment rate set to hit 25% due to Covid19 & the record low oil prices, the vacancy rate is most certainly due to increase again. It is already clear to see that the pandemic has accelerated some trends, whereas other trends may reverse. For example, demand for online shopping has increased and will likely continue, while the ongoing trend for the increased density of work and living space is now under scrutiny.

As the provinces and territories look at reopening. This raises mixed emotions, some of us are anxious about a second wave of the virus and question if this is too soon. Whereas others see it as a positive step in the right direction, as there is light at the end of the tunnel.

One of the biggest challenges will be the return to the office and the challenges employers, along with property managers to make the necessary workplace design changes. With a potential vaccine at least a year away, physical distancing is set to remain in place until then. The big question is how will companies keep their employees safe? Even entering the workplace creates its own challenges. An elevator will only be able to hold between 2-4 people with physical distancing measures in place. How will property managers insure these aren't being overused, especially when there are numerous companies in one building? Calgary and other parts of Canada have additional challenges, as our city centres are all interconnected due to the extreme weather. How will access be controlled to office buildings connected to the plus fifteen, shopping and convention centres?

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, I have read various reports and listened to several different webinars about what we can and cannot expect when we do eventually return to the office. One thing is certain it will not be the same as before. Employees should brace themselves for new safety protocols such as wearing masks and checking their temperature regularly.

With physical distancing laws in effect, office layouts will need to be retrofitted to protect workers. Over the last few weeks, some of the leading commercial furniture companies and architecture firms have collected data and set out guidelines for planning the return to work. There are several key strategies noted in all these publications:

Workplace Design Considerations

Density & the increase in personal space:

Over the last few decades there has been an increase in the trend of the open plan office. This concept is supposed to foster collaboration, with fewer private office and small desks. This does not go hand in hand with physical distancing.

It will always be important to maintain the 6ft/ 2m separation between employees until the pandemic is over. Open areas, workstations, meeting spaces, cafes and breakout spaces will need to be taken into consideration. A conference room which used to hold twelve people can now only hold four. This can be as simple as just removing chairs or taping area's off. Depending on workstation configurations desks can be pulled apart to create a greater distance.

Furniture arrangement:

Being a designer I take joy from knowing each client I work with is unique and so too are their environments. There is no such thing as a one size fits all for office environments. What will work for one company won’t necessarily work for another. This will be the same for when it comes to retrofitting environments during and after Covid19. Each company will face their own challenges with implementing changes. Furniture will need to be reconfigured to reduce face to face orientation. These can also be orientated at 90 degrees to prevent workers from working directly across or behind from one another. Existing furniture can be adapted and moved.

Divisions & Barriers:

This does not mean the return of the dreaded 1960's Action office, with lots the 3 high paneled cubicles. Existing workstations can be temporarily modified. Screens, storage elements, plants and the increased use of movable screens can be incorporated in the revised furniture plan. Using white boards as a barrier is a great idea, as they can be repurposed after the pandemic. There are lots of flexible options available, which will keep employees safe and tie in with existing company branding and aesthetics’.

Rending showing workplace design cubicles with green walls and green plants.


With 40% of us now working from home and the possibility of reduced or staggered occupancy at the office. It will be important for there to be more area's for video conferencing. Whether it is to connect with the staff working remotely or clients that are still weary of making face to face meetings. It is important to be connected to empower and persevere office culture.

With some of the largest US corporations confirming that they will not have employees returning to the office prior to October at the earliest. The return to the office is set to be a slow process. Many companies in Alberta will not be allowed to start having employees come back to work until the government increase the number of people gathering in groups from fifteen people. However now is the time to start planning. Protocols should be in place to deal with mandatory government health regulations, revised office furniture layouts and any new installations, health screening of employees, staggered or phased entry, PPE use, employee training, revised office cleaning schedule, new social distancing signage and way finding and the list goes on. The more the developed the companies return to work strategy is the safer it will be for employee’s health and well being.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. If you have any comments, I would love to hear from you. Stay healthy.

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