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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Many Rural Hospitals Are Not Prepared For COVID-19 Surge. Here’s How They Can Be.

Five Design and Planning Strategies Will Be Critical to Adapting to the Pandemic

April 30, 2020

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s note: Our healthcare clients are on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. We seek to support them as they courageously care for the sick. So we’re posting design ideas based on work with them, in the hope that we can contribute from our base of expertise to help combat the epidemic. From all of us at NBBJ to the many doctors, nurses and support staff in hospitals and clinics, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

This post initially appeared on Forbes. It was co-authored by Teri Oelrich and Bryan Langlands.

 

So far the coronavirus pandemic has been concentrated mainly in New York, Detroit and other major cities. But there is a problem brewing that has received little attention: over two-thirds of rural counties have now reported COVID-19 cases. The pandemic presents a formidable challenge for rural hospitals, which have faced 120 hospital closures over the past decade and frequently struggle to recruit staff and balance the books.

The effects of the pandemic on rural hospitals don’t make the headlines the same way major cities do, partially because the problem is spread out across places many have never heard of. For example, Idaho’s Blaine County has one of the highest infection rates in the U.S. With only 25 hospital beds, Blaine starkly illustrates how the virus can rapidly overrun the healthcare infrastructure of rural communities.

There are critical steps rural hospitals can take now to adapt to the pandemic. Here are five design and planning strategies that will be critical to success.

Develop regional care strategies

Rural communities are usually served by small hospitals that frequently lack the capacity and resources necessary to deal with a spike in COVID-19 cases. One method of mitigating this shortcoming is to develop a regional care strategy with other rural facilities in the region, in which patient care is coordinated to enhance capacity and minimize infection risk.

Areas with multiple hospitals within a roughly 150-mile radius should begin designating one facility as a COVID-19 hospital and care for non-COVID-19 patients at other facilities. The non-COVID hospitals could then potentially perform elective treatment and alleviate some of the financial burden caused by the crisis. Tools like this COVID-19 Inpatient Bed Demand Calculator can help in determining local and regional capacity needs and where coordination may be most beneficial.

Alternative care sites, such as converted dorms, motels or hotels, can also be used to care for non-COVID-19 patients or to monitor less severe COVID-19 cases. Missoula, Montana, for instance, is planning to purchase a motel to use as a safe shelter for those isolating and self-quarantining during the pandemic. Similar buildings can also be repurposed to house caregivers who treat coronavirus patients, or to house out of town doctors, nurses and staff temporarily assisting beleaguered hospitals.

Rural hospitals can also partner with larger urban hospital systems to support care needs. Telemedicine can help provide input from specialists that don’t typically live in rural areas. It could also help rural hospitals receive temporary ventilators, PPE distribution and clinical staff.

Apply for federal aid

While the CARES Act includes a number of provisions to assist rural hospitals— including small business loans, $100 billion in new funding, and Medicare payment improvements— providers can also apply for FEMA Public Assistance (PA) funding. Certain emergency protective measures taken by hospitals in response to COVID-19 are eligible for reimbursement at 75% federal cost-share under the PA program, which is using a new streamlined application process. Applying for federal funding is no small task and requires significant investment in time and follow up documentation. Often hospitals engage consultants who have been successful with previous federal applications to assist them with this process. There is good news though: the cost of consultants to handle applications is covered by FEMA.

Prioritize clear signage and wayfinding

It is critical that COVID-19 patients are able to seek care without inadvertently infecting the general hospital population. This is especially true for rural hospitals, where care for more vulnerable long-term care patients is frequently integrated within the facility. Navigating in and around a hospital can be confusing and stressful, which makes signage and wayfinding vitally important for getting COVID-19 patients where they need to go while minimizing the risk of infecting others.

It is important to have a comprehensive wayfinding system for COVID-19 patients that is succinct, unique and recognizable. For example, using an unusual color like pink to direct patients to the right place helps the signage stand out, as does simple language like, “Follow the pink circle if you have COVID-19 symptoms such as dry cough, fever, and shortness of breath.” This unified wayfinding theme should be employed at every step of the patient’s journey, from the hospital website to signage as patients approach and enter the hospital. COVID-19 patients arriving in personal vehicles could, for example, be directed by signage to a separate parking lot to wait to be tested before entering the hospital.

Screen patients in triage tents

One method of minimizing contact between potentially infectious and non-infectious patients is to set up a triage tent for COVID-19 screening. This is a temporary outdoor structure, frequently set up in a parking lot, which is separate from the emergency department and enables patients to be triaged before they enter the facility. A triage tent must accommodate space for at least four activities—a place for visitors to queue, a check-in area, a waiting area, and private screening rooms. Because the interior of the tent has no walls, screens can be used to create separation and privacy, in addition to flexibility.

Tents need to maintain CDC protocols, such as social distancing of at least six feet, while being able to test the highest number of people at one time. For example, a triage tent of 25 feet by 45 feet can hold no more than 15 people seated. Ensuring the space is as simple as possible to clean and sanitize is also critically important. Frequently vinyl-wrapped tents are used along with furniture and fixtures from the hospital. Some hospitals have even rented tents, complete with lighting, smoke detectors and HVAC, from fire departments.

Make common areas safer

Ensuring safety is an ongoing challenge for hospitals. It is of particular concern in common areas like building entrances, waiting rooms and lounges, where patients and visitors congregate and transmission risks may be more acute. There are several design strategies that can help mitigate these risks while still reassuring and comforting patients and visitors.

Material and furniture selection— including the use of antimicrobial surfaces like copper and easy to clean furniture pieces with seamless detailing and solid surfaces— can help minimize the risk of coronavirus surface transmission. Similarly, touchless surfaces like automatic doors and hand sanitizer dispensers can reduce infection risk. Seating arrangements can also be moved or otherwise modified to create sufficient space between patients to support social distancing. It is also advised to divide patients into infectious and non-infectious groups, supported by adequate signage and physical separation.

As the pandemic expands into rural communities, their hospitals are tasked with the difficult job of safeguarding the health of communities that are typically older, less affluent and less healthy than urban populations. While constrained by capacity and resource challenges, rural hospitals also have a history of adaptability and flexibility that may enable them to deal more nimbly with the rapidly evolving pandemic landscape. Design and planning strategies such as those outlined above can play a major role in supporting them in this critical work they are doing for the communities they live in and support.

 

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

Banner image courtesy Luke Hayes.

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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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