How to Prepare for Reentering the Workplace Post Pandemic

April 10, 2020
Mark Bryan Director - Innovation + Research, Senior Interior Designer

In the course of human history, the coronavirus will be remembered alongside pandemics such as the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, HIV/AIDS, Yellow Fever, and Cholera. This is a time of great change as we have had to socially isolate to protect our families, friends, and ourselves. However, we do know that there will be an end and we will reemerge. One fact about pandemics is that they create inflection points. Take the Black Death for example, along with its harrowing toll on human life, it actually set the stage for new wage systems and the Industrial Revolution. The changes caused by coronavirus will also lead to innovation and a new paradigm of living and working.

At MA Design, we are constantly looking ahead to help prepare our clients, our community, and ourselves to find new solutions that enrich lives through innovative design. As the coronavirus began to affect every aspect of our lives, we immediately began to ask ourselves, “What happens next?” Our responses have led us to develop forecasts on how the workplace will change within the first 3 days, 3 months, and 3 years of reentry, and all of our ideas center around providing employees, staff, and ourselves better comfort and control. These two principles will drive new space and new practice. To help set ourselves and you up for success, we are sharing our thoughts:

Within the First 3 Days of Reentering the workplace, we will see:

Workplace hubs. Not everyone will be ready or prepared to jump back into the office. Many will still be at risk, not have childcare, or be in recovery. They may want to work, but are unwilling or unable to come into the office. Many will have anxiety about having to ride the subway, train, or bus with a mass of people again. The distance to the office could also be prohibitive. As such, there will be a rise in destination working. Similar to co-working, but set into hubs around the city so that co-workers can still work with other members of the office, but nearer to the safety of their home.

Dealing with anxiety. We all can only manage our own anxiety after going through the trauma of the coronavirus pandemic. New procedures will be enacted to take the collective temperature of the office to find out what resources need to be brought in to help deal with the fallout. We are already piloting Respite Rooms, but these spaces will be in demand to help calm the central nervous system. Mindfulness practices and mandatory breaks will also be a part of this new self-care first need.

Prepared policies. Leaders should consider reentering first to create and test the policies that will allow employees to feel safe to come back to work. New cleaning procedures and packages will need to be provided to the employees. These cleaning packages are set up so that each employee can clean their own work area, to feel more comfortable and in control.

Half and half meetings. With our newly found digital-interaction-first practices meetings will be with half the attendees attending in person and half virtual. This allows for people to feel safe that they do not have to travel to other offices where other policies may not match their current workplace. This also allows those who need to work from home or a hub to do so.

Social distanced working. With some of the workplace population still needing to work from home, this is the prime opportunity to space workstations, desks, etc apart to again provide a sense of separation. Conference rooms that were considered “large,” will now be for small gatherings. The workplace cafe will become even more of a destination to work as it allows more space around the worker. Many trainings will now be done virtually, with training rooms needing to be retrofitted to be more agile workspace with socially-distanced spacing.

Celebrations. Most importantly, we want to reconnect with our working friends/family. As humans we need to interact with one another, this is evidenced by how people are currently waving to their neighbors or offering assistance to those who cannot go to the grocery store at this time. We are missing major milestones in our lives. We will see pop-up, socially-distanced, celebrations. These could be to celebrate a graduation, a new baby, or remembering those who were lost. These celebrations will be frequent to rebuild the culture that was lost when moving to WFH.

Within the First 3 Months of Reentering the workplace, we will see:

More agile workspaces. Childcare may be up and running again, but that does not mean parents will feel comfortable taking their children there. As they are more comfortable with coming to their workplace that they know they can control and clean, they will want space beside them or near them for children to be. Offices can be retrofitted to allow such accommodations. Part of agile working is choosing where and how you need to work, something we were already designing in our workplaces even before the coronavirus. This will become even more prevalent as people are more apt to have a combination of working from home and the office. This need for workplace options will lead to more hoteling work stations and drop-in spaces.

Environmental focus. Our world has drastically changed when we were not able to have masses of people commuting, traveling, etc. We will recognize our footprints even more so. As such, times of working from home to help the environment may be encouraged as a way to help be more environmentally friendly. Other policies will be required by the employees to give them the comfort of knowing they are helping the world be better. Our priorities are shifting during this time, and this is but one component that will be at the forefront of what we value most.

Culture packages. We will still have people who can work from home, therefore digital platforms will be created that allows for the backgrounds seen during video conferencing to be branded. Packages will be produced by companies so that all employees working from home have the same tools to allow for better productivity and a sense of commonality.

24/7 work cycle offerings. One way to allow for a sense of safety at the workplace will be to allow rotating work hours. Instead of all employees coming back from 9-5, staggered days will allow employees to choose when they want to work at a time where there might be fewer people in the office. Our entrancing sequences will change for our buildings as well as the services needed for longer/constant workdays.

5G as a priority. We have been hearing that 5G is coming, and in some places it has arrived. We have all experienced either needing faster internet connection to access files remotely, or have had a dropped video chat/cumbersome video chat due to poor connectivity. With some still working from home or having new work cycles, 5G will be pushed through faster to allow better digital interfacing.

PTSD Decision making will continue. Leadership will want to ensure that should the need for isolation/shelter-in-place rise again, they are prepared. New quarantine policies, pandemic insurance, and spaces will be created to allow seamless conversion in the future. Leadership will be ok with a short term loss for a long term gain.

Within the First 3 Years of Reentering the workplace, we will see:

Clean workplaces. Much of our building and workplace infrastructure will have been completely overhauled by this point. Many practices and procedures that are done by healthcare systems will now be expected for the “clean workplace.” This will mean changes to our HVAC systems to help prevent the spread and actively kill viruses and bacteria.

New entrancing sequences. To ensure employees are safe, lobbies and other entry points will be designed to create cleansing zones. This could be done through lighting or other stations. GE is already introducing new lighting toward this goal. This will force all employees to enter through the front lobby, making this experience even more important. For clients or visitors, this will help negate any negative connotation to going into an unfamiliar space.

Siloed living. One thing that became apparent during this time of crisis and change was the fear of losing access to basic needs. As such, pop-up amenities will be built into our workplace buildings that will allow access to healthcare, grocery, and/or childcare within the building on a rotating basis. We could also see the rise of more mixed-use buildings that have retail on the first floor, workplace on the second, and multi-family on the third. This allows for even greater access to products and builds mini communities that can band together during future times of crisis.

Digital avatars and transactions. As we are more familiar with virtual living and working, we will see workplace avatars created that can take our place at meetings as we teach them how to respond to simple questions or agendas. AI will continue to rise to help us shift our focus from mundane tasks and to dive deeper into big data that we have derived from the new studies that will arise from this pandemic.

As we continue to watch our world change, more changes will become self-evident as others become obsolete. What we do know is that the workplace will change, but will still be a necessary and vital component of our lives. Comfort and control are the key essentials to ensuring our workplaces recover quickly and we can start to define the new new normal post WFH and post the pandemic. I encourage everyone to find ways to start building community and connection today. A new paradigm and way of living first requires thought, so define what your comfort level is for reentering the workplace and work toward that goal. Stay safe, stay home, and remember to practice self-care during this time.

If you’re interested in learning more, continue the conversation by contacting Mark Bryan, Senior Interior Designer + Futurist, at