Workspace expert sees safety, shields taking priority in office design
If you're like me, you've likely spent the last two months doing your job from home, either in a room dedicated to work or a makeshift home office in your dining or living rooms.
And -- for whatever reason -- you're longing for a return to the office, where paper clips and pens are plentiful and you can collaborate with your teams without a child or pet tugging at your sleeve.
But when the stay-at-home is finally lifted, you may find the office you return to is not like the one you left. Melissa Kehl, president of Rieke Office Interiors in Elgin, said you can expect several changes when you get back.
"You're going to have safety incorporated into your culture," Kehl said. "Safety was not really a big thought in the front office, but that will change."
Office interior trends in the past several years floated toward the open office concept, which removed walls and barriers between employees to encourage teamwork and collaboration. Open areas with couches and tables were designed to bring people together for quick collaboration, and workspaces were designed to pull more people in a smaller space.
"That all goes out the door now," Kehl said.
"A lot more offices were like, 'hey, let's hang out on the couch and let's do this,'" she said. "Now, it'll be more like "hey, you hang out at that couch and I'll be at this one.
"Now the thing is to spread out. Teams will be spread out, or they'll be adding more dividers between employees."
She expects offices to accommodate workers' safety concerns through creative workflow means, such as having only a certain number of employees work in the office any one day, while others work remotely. Clear shields and dividers -- like you see at grocery store checkout lines -- will also be more prevalent between workstations, and even between employees in common areas such as conference rooms.
Kehl is an advocate of the clear shields, as they provide protection between employees where the 6-foot recommended distance cannot be met, while allowing face-to-face interaction between employees.
"You'll still get to see the person's facial expression and hear them over the panel," she said. "People need people. There are a lot of us that want to go back to face-to-face meetings."
Rieke recently developed a line of clear acrylic shields and partitions that can be adapted to existing work environments. The SafeSpace product line includes portable protective shields with a transaction slot, portable workstation shields and panel extenders. The shields start at $99 and can be easily set up and moved to meet a business' specific needs, Kehl said.
In addition to providing protection, clear panels can retain a major positive of the open office concept -- allowing light into the workspace.
"You're still being safe with the added protection between people, but you're still able to let that light in," Kehl said. "That will still be very important."
She noted the idea for SafeSpace came from a Rieke executive who had a doctor appointment, and the doctor was wearing a face shield. Her team was able to go from concept to finished product, ready to market in one week, she added, using its in-house engineers and manufacturing capabilities to make the quick transition.
Other changes Kehl foresees in the post COVID-19 workplace will be the replacement of fabric panels and dividers with surfaces that can be cleaned easily, such as laminate.
"The cleanability, that's what everyone is talking about now," she said. "If it's bleach cleanable, great ... then we want that in our office space."
With the new surfaces, expect companies to more thoroughly clean workstations.
"Cleaning services that used to come in every other day? Well, people will be wanting that done every day," she said.
That could mean changing habits for employees who tend to keep messy desks.
"You'll need a different approach to basics, like filing and organization, in order for desk to be sanitized at a different level," she said.
Hands-free technology will also play a larger role in the future office, Kehl said, as filing cabinets and desk drawers will be made to operate with a foot switch or a bump of the hip.
Kehl notes that if you're going to bring your employees back into the office, have a definite plan in place before you open the doors.
"You may want to consider alternative working between home and office, but be sure to pull that all together with a good plan," she said. "Whoever works together on teams, make sure they are together. Plan that out so the proper people are together when they need to be together."
And -- of course -- she recommends shields and clear panel extensions as an easy and portable solution without spending big money to make your workspace safe.
"This is really about helping people and getting them back into the office," she said, "and getting those face-to-face meetings happening again."