Rethinking Commercial Lobbies During the Pandemic

Five Design Considerations to Make Office Lobbies Safer and More Welcoming

May 1, 2020

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Tim Johnson, Stuart Fox and Paula Buick.

 

With states gradually seeking to lift shelter-in-place laws, developers are instituting phased strategies for reopening their buildings in a safe and hygienic manner. While many states moving quickly to reopen have issued mandatory guidelines for workplace safety, anxiety about workplace infection remains high – a recent informal survey found that 81% of employees do not feel safe about returning to the office. Given this context, workplaces need to not only adhere to infection control protocols but also instill a palpable sense of safety and assurance in the people using the space.

Commercial office lobbies are a crucial element in establishing a safer, more uplifting work environment, as they are the primary means for entering a building. They are a logical space for deploying and highlighting new hygienic measures and protocols, as well as creating an atmosphere that reassures and informs tenants. To add to the complexity, these measures are more challenging to implement in multi-tenant buildings, where numerous policies on guests, package drop-off and lobby use have to be coordinated across multiple companies.

Given the potential complexities of this task, here are five design considerations building owners and operators should take into account as they rethink lobby areas.

 

Visible Safety Measures

There are a number of safety measures and protocols which can be deployed in lobby spaces to control the spread of infection. These include obvious but effective protocols like regular cleanings and the provision of hand sanitizer, gloves and masks. But there are also more advanced solutions that are also beneficial beyond COVID-19, including lobbies that use proximity badges to maintain healthy density levels, screening kiosks, improved air handling including filtration and air exchange, and touchless technology on doors and elevators, potentially using facial recognition, to reduce the risk of contact infection. Buildings could even implement an express lane for pre-screened individuals using a QR code or use entry/exit sensors to detect occupancy levels in the elevators and office floors.

It is important from a psychosocial perspective that these safety and health measures are visible to building tenants in order to reinforce the sense that the building is a safe, well managed environment. In the current context, conspicuous measures like health screenings in lobbies, time lapse videos showing cleanings, and even digital visualizations monitoring air quality in the building may help put tenants’ minds at ease.

 

Signage and Wayfinding

Signage and wayfinding play a critical role in getting tenants where they need to go and keeping them informed of new building safety and hygiene protocols. Lobbies will likely be the primary access point for building tenants, but other means will have to remain open for evacuation and fire safety purposes. Signage should clearly inform tenants which entrances and exits are to be used, and which are strictly for emergencies, so that everyone accessing the building goes through the necessary security and screening points.

Signage should be clear, concise and uniformly deployed in the lobby as well as throughout the building. Uncommon colors like pink may help important messages stand out, along with simple language and intuitive icons. In addition to wayfinding, signage can reinforce important protocols, informing tenants about handwashing, social distancing and other important infection control elements.  It can be playful, catchy or fun, reinforcing positive messages like “we can do this,” which can serve to assuage anxieties and make important information more memorable. It is also important to strike the right balance in terms of the amount of signage used—too little signage is ambiguous, while too much is confusing and can conversely create the subjective impression that a space is unsafe.

 

Digital Media and Messaging

The projected increase in queueing in the lobby due to potential health screenings or elevator bottlenecks may represent an opportunity to incorporate monitors and digital signage for entertainment and real-time information purposes. Digital displays can provide important facility information such as shared and tenant-specific building policies as well as recent changes, which may be particularly useful in multi-tenant buildings, or provide information on queuing times.

Displays can also serve a broader role as forums for sharing news about the immediate neighborhood, such as information on public transit or which restaurants have re-opened or are delivering. They can additionally be used to field and answer questions from building occupants, sharing relevant information with tenants as they queue and reinforcing the sense that the building’s management is aware of and responding to concerns. This can play a critical role in helping people feel more comfortable in their environment. Digital signage could also provide elements of inspiration, distraction or connection, like turning the color blue when other landmarks in the city do so to honor healthcare workers.

 

Elevators and Stairs

Getting to the office may be a major bottleneck in commercial office buildings, given the need to adhere to social distancing measures. A standard passenger elevator is 6’ x 6,’ which could theoretically accommodate four individuals at each corner while barely maintaining minimum social distancing guidelines. Though office buildings will likely, at least initially, have significantly lower occupancy as a large portion of people continue to work from home, there will still be a need for queueing at 6’ intervals or other measures to relieve social density as people wait for elevators.

For tenants on lower floors, stairs are alternate option. If this becomes a major traffic area, rules can be established about passing, entering and exiting so that social distancing can be maintained. Another consideration is that people may be reluctant to use the handrail for hygienic purposes, which could increase the possibility of falls.

 

Staging Arrivals and Exits

Given the trend towards increasing office densification, a high-rise office building might have several thousand occupants arriving and departing the building during peak commute periods. Queuing for elevators during these peak periods while maintaining social distancing protocols could quickly become impractical due to space limitations.

In order to lessen social density in the lobby during high traffic periods, it may be necessary to stage arrivals and exits. This may need to be developed in coordination with mass transit, which will likely need to use staggered arrivals and departures. For single tenant buildings an employer can develop a company policy, but for multi-tenant buildings this can potentially be done via a phone app, which provides companies or individuals with scheduled arrival and departure slots to minimize the number of people using the lobby at any given time. Such functionality could be built onto existing smart building apps frequently used to manage building security, services, comfort levels and other facility-related issues.

As people gradually return to the office, building owners and managers will face a number of challenges in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their tenants. Lobbies are an important space in this regard, as highly trafficked, highly visible places that transition people from the surrounding neighborhood to their workplace. While the logistical issues of maintaining security and safety during the pandemic are apparent, there are also notable opportunities in lobbies for creating more welcoming, responsive environments that more deeply connect people with the buildings they use.

 

How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at socialmedia@nbbj.com.

Banner image courtesy Sean Airhart.

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How the Coronavirus Could Accelerate Technology in the Workplace

From automation to kinetic infrastructure, five technologies that will define the brave new office

April 29, 2020

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Robert Mankin and Layne Braunstein.

 

As the coronavirus lessens its grip in some areas, our offices will be one of the first places we go back to — and it will be an ever more critical space for us to socialize, ideate, connect and meet. For many companies, the workplace will no longer be a place for heads-down tasks that we can accomplish from home, but will instead serve as a “passthrough office,” one which prioritizes spaces for group work.

At the same time, the virus is also accelerating preexisting technological trends that will support this transformation, freeing us to reevaluate what matters in the office, such as deeper collaboration, meaningful personal connections and increased creativity. The office will evolve into a place of fulfillment rather than just a place of work, and “office culture,” for many individuals, will become their social outlet.

Here are a few ways the pandemic could accelerate technology in the office:

 

Kinetic Infrastructure

What is it? Hyper-flexible offices that shape-shift on command, to meet employee and team preferences — and evolve to address long-term business goals.

Why does it matter? As people return to the office, the great “work from home experiment” shows that many are productive in a variety of environments, and even shift how they work throughout the day, thus creating a need for more flexible office infrastructure. While current building apps can allow employees to find areas in their office with their preferred environment (temperature, lighting, etc.) the kinetic office concept takes the smart workplace even further: rather than employees adapting to the building, the building adapts to each employee’s needs and an organization’s business priorities.

What could it look like? Employees can easily and rapidly adjust workstations, expand or contract common areas and meeting rooms, remove or add interior walls and partitions, as well as use software to tailor the air temperature, ventilation, lighting and noise levels to create the perfect work environment. Moreover, flexible infrastructure will create a framework to accommodate current technology and integrate those not invented yet into the workplace in the future.

Smart Furniture: Nissan introduced a “self-parking” conference chair in 2016, which may provide a glimpse into how this could work on a furniture level in offices. Similar to the technology in self-parking vehicles, the chair’s position is detected by a series of sensors, which then help to guide it back to its “parked” position. As autonomous vehicles become more reliable and prevalent — and as 5G becomes more affordably integrated into buildings — this technology could be more broadly applied to furniture systems, and even room partitions, in an office.  The potential is tremendous, from automating basic janitorial services to rapidly reconfiguring rooms for events or new uses.

Hyper-Customized Experience: Our offices may automatically flex and contract to the workforce more deliberately on an experiential level. Like our smartphones and homes, our workstations should express our personal preferences in real-time. We need to “own” our experiences. Every office element should adjust — not just the physical space — to reflect our moods: from music to lighting to interactive graphic presentation preferences.

 

Automation

What is it?  Automation — artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics that complete routine cognitive and physical tasks typically carried out by people in their work — may become more prevalent in the office.

The COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate this trend, as ensuring both human safety and maintaining business function will become the main market drivers.

Why does it matter? Technology is a means of convenience, to offload the trivial or tedious, so we can focus more on what matters in the workplace. The office could become a place where jobs that prioritize high value tasks, such as critical thinking, creativity, and social skills, become even more essential. This could also open up opportunities for other types of employment. “A new category of knowledge-enabled jobs will become possible as machines embed intelligence and knowledge that less-skilled workers can access with a little training,” writes the McKinsey Global Institute on the future of tech and work.

What could it look like? Automation is not just robots. For the office, much of the automation may be software-based, and physically located beyond the office. Areas where we see automation having near term impacts in the workplace are:

Routine Tasks: Any routine work, regardless of profession, is now subject to automation. Some of the most highly compensated and skilled professions, such as accounting, trading, legal and medical (surgical), will be subject to significant automation in the coming 10-15 years.  Because of the rapid nature of adoption, offices will need to be more flexible and customizable to deal with changing departmental needs, and accommodate new business lines as they emerge.

Data Centers: Experts predict that by 2025, we’ll create 163 zettabytes of digital data worldwide. For data to be more effectively harnessed to improve machine learning and automated technologies, there must be a corresponding investment in data centers and technology infrastructure to support this shift. A trend we already see in our work in both Korea and China is that the first phase of any new corporate campus is a large data center, with an additional one or two phases of future expansion.

Mindful Balance: As artificial intelligence takes over more aspects of our work, it provides a chance for us to step back to address how we add to our work and our lives. It can be humbling, but also freeing, for AI to do the work that we have been doing for years. This is happening already in certain fields. In generative media, time-intensive hand-drawn digital animations can be carried out via AI, so now a designer can focus more on the story, then set up a basic ecosystem and let the AI run. While this might seem unsettling, it can be a new beginning for balance, where there are no true work hours anymore. Instead, AI could deploy our ideas — developed at any time — into projects, freeing us from the typical 9-5 schedule to focus on a more meaningful career and life.

 

Touchless Technology

What is it? Seamless hands-free technology that allows employees and visitors to move through a building and experience interactive graphics without touching communal, shared surfaces.

Why does it matter? As cleanliness and sanitization are at the forefront of everyone’s minds during the pandemic, this could provide an obvious, yet critical way to address infection prevention by minimizing the transmission of viruses and bacteria.

What would it look like? Interactive graphics, as well as doors, lights, windows, blinds, bathrooms and other building components would be fully hands-free via smart technology embedded into architecture and building systems.

Security: Security will continue to be ever more invisible and seamless. This is an important step in the experience of many urban campuses, as the security checkpoint is a place of human interaction and touch — not to mention invasive in many cases, with magnetometers and other scanning devices. This may evolve to not only be hands-free, but also more pleasant for visitors and employees alike.

An Extension of Brand: A company’s policy of cleanliness, and how their workplace design and operations support it, will become an important part of their external brand, and a potential attractor for talent.

Universal Language for Natural User Interfaces: A challenge in adopting natural user interfaces controlled by touchless motion is in the learning curve, to memorize all of the steps needed to communicate with an interface. Yet, like the standard gestures we use on our smartphones, interactive graphics in buildings may finally adopt universal touchless gestures to make this adoption easier, spurred by the urgent need to be hands-free in public spaces due to the pandemic.

 

Sensors, Sensors, Everywhere

What is it? Sensors in buildings can track occupants’ motions and proximity, as well as temperature, humidity, air quality, lighting levels, electrical usage and more.

Why does it matter? Sensors embedded in ceilings, building products and other areas would help offices stay smart, improve employee wellness and communicate data, like sustainability metrics, to facilities and employees.

What could it look like? While currently implemented in interactive digital displays as well as retail experiences like AmazonGo stores, the next generation of sensors in offices could provide not only engaging experiences for employees, clients and visitors, but also streamline logistics,  target in-person and robotic cleaning protocols, determine conference room availability, remind employees to take a break, calculate office supply inventories and facilitate orders, and even tune circadian lighting.

Personalization and Storytelling: Sensors play a critical role in the modern workplace experience. In our projects, we use sensors to personalize a space and help tell a story. For example, we can adjust an experience to “see” clothing colors, body heat, brain waves and kinetic motion and analyze this information to create personalized mood-driven visuals. Artificial intelligence today is highly-advanced: it can even detect what people are holding or carrying, for example, the type of handbag, a pen or pencil, etc., and adjust based on an individual’s taste. As more people welcome sensors into their work lives, as they do at home, our offices will adjust throughout the day, tailored to our preferences and moods.

 

Customized Augmented Reality Experiences

What is it? Not just for previewing 3D architecture designs, augmented reality custom-built into our offices could become the new way we connect with teams, clients and collaborators around the world.

Why does it matter? With teams dispersed across the globe more than ever before, our future offices could primarily serve as hubs for connecting in person, but also provide high-fidelity virtual collaboration tools.

What could it look like? Augmented reality is the future of… everything. Deployed in conference rooms and common areas, but also via wearables, here are a few possible trends:

Travel Replacement: The coronavirus has substantially restricted business travel, particularly internationally, and travel reductions may likely continue for several years driven by health concerns as well as cost considerations. Advancements in sophisticated augmented reality tools for the office may be critical to support collaboration of dispersed teams and clients on a global level.

Wearables: By 2030, we may all wear augmented reality glasses that look just like regular glasses. In our offices, this could create an entirely new layer of reality on top of what we see every day — from clothes that can be changed to adapt to a meeting’s purpose, to virtual collaboration buddies and workspaces. The common areas in our offices will need physical and virtual layouts to accommodate this blend in our work lives — and to attract talent. This isn’t some far-off future. It’s happening now. And this current pandemic is just accelerating these technologies, not creating them.

 

In Other Words…

As the coronavirus crisis changes the way we work, the role of technology in the workplace will accelerate. Technology can help us have more fulfilling careers and comfortable work environments: it can provide a high-degree of customization, help us be more productive and spark creativity — as well as connect with teams and clients in a more meaningful way.

 

How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at socialmedia@nbbj.com.

Banner image courtesy © Your123 

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How to Reduce Stress as People Come Back to the Office

Applying Neuroscience Principles to Foster Comfort and Improve Workplace Health

April 27, 2020

Design Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Suzanne Carlson, Edwin Beltran and Hannah Smith.

 

As COVID-19 sweeps the globe, it’s creating two health crises: one that is physical based on the impact of the virus itself, and one that is emotional due to the wide-ranging toll it takes on mental health.  When it comes to emotional health and work, a specific stressor is the thought of returning to the office and the fear of getting sick from fellow commuters or colleagues.

Acute and chronic stress negatively impacts our lives, from job performance to relationships, to critical thinking and educational outcomes. Neuroscience research shows that stress can literally make our brains shrink, yet there are also proven ways to re-energize and feed them.

Over the past decade, our workplaces have been optimized to increase productivity, collaboration and innovation. Now more than ever, our offices need to not only optimize job performance, but provide comfort, mental stability and focus — to help us flourish while keeping us safe. But how?

Neuroscience as a Framework

Dr. John Medina, an affiliate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and an NBBJ Fellow, examines the causation of stress and its impact on us as humans. Applying Dr. Medina’s research to the workplace in our COVID-19 world may help not only alleviate stress, but also support comfort, resilience and optimism in these difficult times. Here are some specific ideas, backed by neuroscience research that can help:

Provide choice to increase comfort and calm.

When employees have greater control over their work, it reduces stress, which is especially critical during a pandemic. An important first step is to give employees the choice to work from home, return to the office, or combine both modes. In the workplace, providing options can also mean creating spaces for “prospect” and “refuge” — areas where colleagues can both see each other and also go to retreat.

Offices that provide prospect and refuge mimic the savannah environment in which our pre-historic ancestors lived, with views of the sweeping plains and a cave close by. “Developing simultaneous preferences for expansive space and enclosed shelter was fundamental to our survival,” writes Dr. Medina. Today, in office plans that provide high levels of visibility, modular “micro offices” with easy-to-clean materials can help with infection control and offer social distancing, flexibility and balance, in addition to privacy and quiet. These strategies, coupled with operational changes — such as stringent cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting protocols — may help.

Support an active workday and policies to help build resilient behaviors.

Offering ways for employees to incorporate motion into their work activities is especially important during the pandemic, to improve not just physical health, but mental clarity too. Studies show walking meetings at 1.8 miles per hour optimize information processing, while lowering the stress hormone, cortisol. Circulation paths in and around the office could serve as meeting and fitness loops, with graphic markers to facilitate proper social distancing and indicate the amount of calories burned based on distance traveled. Allowing walking meetings, where employees have the opportunity to go for a walk outside the office too, is a win-win. It helps maximize cognitive focus, provides fresh air and reduces stress.

Adopting policies that address social distancing guidelines and employees’ needs for solitude and socialization can lay a positive foundation too. For example, welcoming stairs can help people to get in their steps, increase their endorphins — and avoid the close confines of an elevator — while promoting greater connections between colleagues on different floors, which can reduce stress as well.

Employ nature’s healing benefits.

As humans are wired to spend time outside, it’s even more critical now than ever before to consider the positive effects of nature on our health and productivity. Numerous studies show that looking at plants and the sounds of running water can lower anxiety, speed healing and even boost the immune system. These are key elements workplaces could benefit from, and particularly so during the coronavirus crisis.

While some workplaces connect with the outdoors in a significant way, incorporating smaller touches can help too. Simple strategies like access to natural daylight by opening blinds and pulling in fresh air via operable windows could lower indoor contaminants, because sunlight and higher rates of ventilation can reduce the viability of viruses in the air and on surfaces — like a natural disinfectant. In addition, weaving in green-colored accents like rugs and furniture, facing desks toward views, or even bringing in certain plants with antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, can increase employee wellness.

Engage the senses to create restorative moments of reflection.

Providing a sensory experience in the workplace that acknowledges heightened emotions could provide comfort and familiarity in these challenging times. Studies show indirect attention breaks — such as views to outdoors, listening to calming sounds and smelling soothing natural scents like lavender — for 10 minutes per every 100 minutes of focused attention, can minimize stress and blunt the negative effects of mental fatigue, but also promote mindfulness and increase executive function.

These restorative experiences could be amplified by creating niches filled with peaceful artwork, inspiration boards or team achievement walls to provide additional ways for employees to pause, regroup and reconnect with themselves and their teams.

In Summary

As we return to the office, stress levels of employees will be high for a variety of reasons — but we should strive to avoid the workplace itself being a cause of such stress. By incorporating the benefits of neuroscience into the workplace, we can transform our offices to evoke a sense of calm during what is a difficult situation for all, and be ready for whatever the future may bring.

 

How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at socialmedia@nbbj.com.

Banner image courtesy Sean Airhart.

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