Amid the discussions about HVAC system upgrades, enhanced cleaning schedules and installation of automatic door openers, touchless faucets and anti-bacterial surfaces, many Americans are adopting new expectations around acceptable wellness standards in their workplaces. Some design professionals predict those expectations will fuel a new wellness culture that will stretch far beyond measures to limit disease spread and last well after the pandemic subsides.
“The pandemic has been a disruptor, but also an accelerator of trends and that includes trends around wellbeing,” said Robin Senecal, Director of Architecture and Design at American Office. “From an employer’s standpoint, from a management and leadership standpoint, that includes thinking about how do you care for people holistically. It’s not just a question of how do I provide people with a place to work, it’s how do I care for my employees’ physical and mental health, and create a positive experience for them at the office.”
In mid- and post-pandemic America, that will require some changes to the workplace.
“People are eager to return to the workplace. They miss connecting and collaborating with coworkers. Getting back to the office will also help reset some boundaries that separate business from personal life and that will benefit people’s psychological and emotional health as well,” said David Kuntz, President and Owner of American Office.
Employees will need to feel comfortable before returning to office buildings. But a growing list of products and design strategies is making it easier to create that comfortable and healthy work environment.
“Fresh, clean air inside the office is essential, but in some cases upgrading HVAC systems is very expensive or not practical,” said Jessica Riker, Director of Sales – Architectural Wall and ICT at American Office.
New lines of air purifiers, however, are creating less costly options for improving indoor air quality.
“Individual units are a minimal size, can be floor mounted or wall mounted, and used for an individual room or a larger, open floor,” Riker said. “They turn over air within that interior so that it is refreshed at least three times an hour so the air you are breathing inside your office can be as fresh as the air outside.”
Evolving design strategies for reconfiguring workspaces are increasingly focusing not just on creating physical safety but also easing anxiety and supporting collaborative, productive work. For example, spacing out workstations can help employees safely distance. Adding clear, acrylic screens around those stations “allows people to create a sense of safe, individual space but still allows them to engage with others visually and verbally inside the office,” Riker said.
Similarly, growing lines of modular office furniture, including de-mountable partitions and walls on casters, are providing employers and facilities managers with options to reconfigure spaces to safely accommodate small group meetings or accommodate changes in office use and occupancy throughout and after the pandemic.
That heightened focus on building safety and worker wellness has prompted increased inquiries about WELL Building certification since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the institute that administers the program.
“I think the WELL Building standard is experiencing a bit of a surge because people are more interested in measuring, monitoring and certifying wellness features in the built environment,” said Jeff Taylor, Principal Officer with Arris, a Design Studio, Inc.
The standard addresses certain items that directly relate to stemming the spread of infectious diseases, such as air quality standards, cleaning protocols and hygienic surfaces. But WELL Building protocols stretch far beyond that. The standard’s 10 components include occupant access to sunlight and nature, design features that promote an active lifestyle, access to healthy food onsite and design strategies that support cognitive and emotional wellbeing.
Although client requests recently have focused on pandemic-related issues, Taylor expects upcoming projects could also produce broader wellness benefits in commercial buildings. “For example, we are seeing a resurgence of interest in stairwells. They started becoming more popular in recent years because it’s healthier to take the stairs. Now, we are seeing that people are going to be hesitant to get into a five-by-five box and ride an elevator with other occupants. So clients want to make stairwells attractive.”