May 18, 2020 - COVID

Is the open office a thing of the past?



Collaborative work spaces, retrofitting older buildings, coffee bars, and amenities have all become tenets of modern office design. But these days it’s hard to imagine sitting at a shared desk, facing multiple coworkers.

Duke Energy’s new innovation center opened a little over a year ago at Optimist Hall. The 83,000-square-foot office space was designed with plenty of open areas, white boards, and shared desks. The goal was to remove traditional physical barriers and create a flow within the office. If the center was developing an app, for example, the work would start with a team at the front of the space and make its way toward a team at the back of the office.

Those plans seem like distant memories.

More than half of Duke’s workforce — 18,000 of the company’s 30,000 employees — are now working from home, including the 400-some people who just two months ago spent their days in the innovation center.

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As Charlotte starts to reopen after a two-month coronavirus shutdown, Duke, like just about every other office-based business in town, faces a new reality in terms of office spaces and employee health.

The company has no plans to abandon the innovation center site or make big changes in the near future; it’s been transformative for the company’s culture, says Catherine Butler of Duke Energy corporate communications. But things will certainly be different.

“The trend has been densification,” Butler says. “So now we might have to back up and go the other direction to de-densify.”

Duke Energy’s innovation center. Note: This photo was taken before the coronavirus outbreak. Courtesy of Duke Energy.

This isn’t the first and won’t be the last time a public-health crisis has influenced office design.

Wellness has been at the forefront of modern office design for the past 15 years.

Now you see sit-stand workstations, more plants, and natural light being incorporated into design. You even see fitness centers, yoga studios, and meditation rooms. The idea is to improve overall health — from physical to psychological to even spiritual — of office users.

The virus may usher in a new era of health measures and technology and design, Jane Nichols department chair of Home Furnishings & Interior Design at High Point University said.

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Designers, for instance, can incorporate subtle visual cues to help remind us to stand six feet apart, instead of the tape on the floor we see now. If the floor is carpeted, there could be a change in the texture every six feet, or on the walls, maybe there’s a pattern that repeats every three to six feet, Nichols says.

High-tech, touch-free solutions may also become fixtures of office design, like motion-censored lighting, button-free elevators, bathroom doors that open with a wave of your hand.

Some air systems even sense when body temperature in the room rises; it then pumps more fresh air into the room to diffuse germs.

“Buildings are very smart now, we can make them do whatever we want to do,” Nichols said.

hygge instagram room charlotte coworking
Hygge Jay Street

So, what does the post-pandemic workspace look like?

“I think about it all day, every day,” Hygge Coworking founder Garrett Tichy told the Agenda.

Like for Duke Energy and other employers across the city, Tichy’s concern is safety. With the coworking model, people have to feel safe when they come back.

Tichy said employers with offices at Hygge are free to change the layout and install sneeze guards, but changing the floor plans of Hygge’s four Charlotte locations wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

“If we built walls, it would defeat the entire model we’ve built,” he said. “And, if we create more privacy, why would people pay for that? They could just work from home.”

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He hopes the coworking model is still relevant. Even before COVID-19, he said it was normal to see fewer than eight people spread out in a room that seats 20-plus. And most tenants aren’t usually there all at once.

Whitley Wood, principal and co-managing director of architecture and design firm Gensler Charlotte, also predicts elements of modern office design are here to stay, but with a few tweaks.

Employers can reduce conference room capacity by removing chairs, and overall capacity by using only every other desk.

Wood also expects amenity-rich offices to stay in demand with an even greater focus on health and wellness. We could start to see more green and open-air space in offices, for example.

Wood, like Nichols, says that changes in flooring and walls will offer subconscious clues to keep people distanced.

Surfaces are also a hot topic among designers.

With things like sneeze guards, often made of plexiglass or acrylic, “the germs sit on top, readily available to inhale,” Nichols explains. They’re fine to use, but you have to clean them thoroughly multiple times a day to really be effective. On the other hand, if you use a textural fabric partition, it can absorb or repel some germs, making it less likely for someone to breath it in — and they only need to be cleaned weekly.

“Right now feels really dramatic, like we’ve never been in this situation before,” Nichols says, “but really design has been responding to heath issues all along.”

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