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Together Again: The Future of Shared Spaces in the Office

Why do we miss the office? And will we still love it when we return?

The simple joy of coffee with coworkers in the café. Sketching out ideas on whiteboards, post-it notes and digital displays in comfortable meeting spaces. It’s the collective energy and vibe of a space full of people united in a common purpose.

Though we’re successfully getting some types of work done remotely and over video, we’re struggling with the generative work that creates new ideas and solves complex problems. And we are missing the intrinsic human experience of working together – face-to-face – in spaces that were designed specifically to foster the creativity, agility and innovation that organizations need to be truly productive and grow.

It’s clear that social connection builds trust and strong bonds. But our ability to adapt to working remotely is reliant upon the relationships built over time through the spontaneous interactions and relaxed conversations that happen in person – in a conducive environment. The informal, shared spaces – or ancillary spaces – where we socialized, collaborated, focused and rejuvenated, enhanced our work experience before COVID-19 sent us all home.

But when we return, will these spaces that we love go away because of safety concerns? Or will they change?

After months working apart, employees now say the main reason they want to come back to the office is to be with other people, socialize and collaborate in ways that just aren’t possible remotely. That’s why a diverse range of spaces in the office that support these work modes, and collaboration in particular, will not go away. What’s more, they are likely to be even more desired. But they will have to evolve now and for the near term to meet the new requirements of the post-COVID workplace.

Coming together in the workplace to socialize and collaborate will become the greatest purpose that the new office can fulfill.

The shared spaces that support this purpose also bring a welcomed warmth and energy to the workplace. We’ll continue to be drawn to those spaces that bring us together in more residentially-inspired, comfortable settings which also support our performance. But the attributes that make these spaces desirable – softer furnishings, lush materials, crafted finishes – must also consider new safety concerns. Now, shared spaces must pivot towards supporting the physical distancing and cleaning protocols that are required to create a safer work environment. These spaces that employees most enjoy must be adapted or created to not only enhance productivity but to ensure that the people using them can be safe and feel safe too.

We’re striving to balance the need for compelling spaces with the need for safety.

Not just the sense of psychological safety that fosters good social interactions when people feel at ease – but the physical distancing and provisions needed to ensure they are safer. At the same time, shared spaces need to perform – more than ever, which is why we use the following design strategies to guide more effective outcomes.

Design Challenges

Steelcase studied the new issues of creating safer work environments in the COVID-19 world, we’ve discovered the following three main design challenges – physical distancing, circulation patterns and spatial context. Understanding distancing and density, and their relationship to circulation patterns within an existing spatial context, is key to solving for the evolving safety guidelines in shared spaces.

Physical Distancing

Think of this as your personal 6ft/2m sphere in both static and dynamic environments. To maintain 6ft/2m from other people, each individual is responsible for their own sphere and how it intersects with others as people come together in shared spaces – or move through the office. Furniture arrangement must provide adequate distancing to accommodate personal spheres.

Circulation Patterns

Think of this as traffic flow through primary and secondary pathways – or main boulevards used by all and neighborhood side streets used by residents. People must be able to move through spaces while maintaining their personal sphere. Safe circulation through and around shared spaces can be addressed through adequate width, directional traffic or additional shielding.

Spatial Context 

Every space is different. Understanding your spatial context is required to adapt and design shared spaces to solve for physical distancing and circulation patterns. Are settings in enclosed spaces with fixed walls, static furniture, restrictive ingress/egress and limited airflow – or in open spaces with more flexible arrangements and additional airflow? How densely populated are the spaces? How tight are the pathways – and are they through open spaces or through doors and true corridors? What needs to be adjusted to provide adequate space or shielding?

So, as work leans into the power of teams, the workplace is following suit. We are innately social beings. And, while we may never look forward to our commutes, we will continue to seek out the connections and collaborations that come from physically being with our colleagues.

*Source of article: Steelcase

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