Defiant designs

Cool office spaces beckon employees back under a COVID-19 cloud of uncertainty.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

This is a tale of two times. Pre-COVID-19 — also known as early March — when most of us were working, the unemployment rate was under 3%, stocks were soaring, and tourism, construction, economic development, and just about every aspect of the economy was chugging along.

The pandemic is an unprecedented time on this planet where life as we knew it changed in an instant and continues with no end in sight. Those lucky enough to be deemed essential likely have been relegated to working from home offices, whether prepared or not, as we all cross our fingers for an end to the madness.

Over the next couple of pages, we present some cool office spaces designed long before COVID-19, but we would be remiss if we didn’t also discuss the future that faces us when (and frankly, if) we’re allowed to return.

It’s human nature to carry on, and in the design world there are plenty of remarkable offices beckoning employees to come back when the time is right.

We spoke with experts from Strang, InteriorLOGIC, and Lerdahl Busines Interiors, who offered their thoughts on designing in a crisis nobody could have predicted.

Avoiding fear

In mid-April, headlines began to appear across the web: “This is the end of the of the office as we know it,” [Rani Molla, data editor, Recode] was one interesting story, as mainstream America tried to figure out — and is still trying to figure out — how to correct something we don’t understand.

Indeed, the world has already changed, but panic is not a strategy as the late Franklin D. Roosevelt reminds in his inaugural speech: “… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Peter Tan, executive vice president and chief design officer at Strang, warns against designing out of fear. “We need to look forward,” he says. “This is an opportunity for a reset. Instead of going back to what was normal, we need to move on.”

Communities and designers alike should and will learn from this opportunity, he explains, but knee-jerk reactions won’t help anyone.

“From a design standpoint, if you’re afraid of a school shooting at a K-12 school, one option is to design the school like a fortress, but that’s designing out of fear. On the other hand, colorful, transparent spaces designed with more glass offers transparency that police prefer and may be a better approach. We need to think outside the box.”

Tan believes post-COVID-19 design will require the right attitude from business executives and employees alike. “Crises and challenges breed innovation,” he says, citing the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that spurred manufacturing growth.

Over a century later, the focus has changed to wellness and safety. Employees who don’t feel safe will look to employers to provide guidelines regarding new cleanliness and safety rules. Such efforts could quickly become an attraction-retention issue.

The onus will be on businesses in the future — hopefully with employee input — to ensure that employee safety is top of mind, and cleanliness not only has a renewed emphasis, but that it is evident and transparent throughout the workspace.

Meanwhile, architects, engineers, and designers will continue to design buildings that can adapt to change and growth, Tan says. “If a building is too precisely designed for one solution, any change will make it rigid.”

Resiliency is also crucial. “A community that can weather a crisis can weather change,” Tan adds. “It’s about responding rather than reacting. In design, we call it disaster preparedness, and we need to do this together.

“There are a lot of good minds figuring this out.”

Predicting post-pandemic design

The notion of clean, transparent design has suddenly taken on a more literal urgency when it comes to office space, and interior designers will play an integral role in that, notes Robin Stroebel, owner/CEO of InteriorLOGIC.

Whether solutions will be temporary or permanent is the big unknown that makes planning difficult for all concerned. In the interim, employers can reconfigure their spaces to allow for social distancing or turn desks away from each other to maintain the six-foot separation rule.

“One CEO suggested we could go back to enclosed cubicles. We all shuddered,” Stroebel sighs. “But you either have to spread people out or shut people out. That could increase real estate needs and costs.”

Entryways into buildings or offices will be heavily scrutinized, Stroebel predicts.

Will sensors be installed to monitor body temperature in the vestibule (the airlock space between two entry doors)? Will people step onto a sanitizing mat before entering an office? Will guests need to buzz in prior to entering?

Will masks be required for guests and employees? Will furniture and common areas be disinfected or wiped down, and if so, by whom and how many times a day?

Clean office design raises countless possibilities, Stroebel explains, and the technology does exist. It just depends on how far a budget can be stretched.

There are automatic door openers; antimicrobial materials that are easy to wipe clean; touchless vending machines; UV light machines; ionized hydrogen peroxide treatments; touchless drinking fountains and faucets; and automatic toilet seat covers like those in airports.

Hand sanitizing stations should be in plain view, and even cafeterias — the social gathering hub of many offices — may not survive social distancing rules.

“Leaving snacks out or bringing food in to share with others probably will not happen for quite a while,” Stroebel laments.

As long as this pandemic continues, business owners will need to think about the protocols they’ll put in place with employee safety in mind.

Meanwhile, Stroebel says designers will focus on how they can improve interior spaces to fight back and protect people. “It’s in our wheelhouse,” she assures.

In late April, Lerdahl VP/Partners Tonya Zurfluh and Laurie Richards were getting calls from clients seeking advice on work station modifications. As businesses hope for normalcy to return, employee safety must be a priority, if not a mandate.

Meeting spaces will be altered. “At least in the short term, we’ll see employers try to satisfy that [six-foot] rule by removing chairs,” notes Zurfluh. Luckily, technology now allow others to participate virtually.

Businesses should take clues from health care systems and grocery stores, suggests Richards. “People are discussing one-way hallways [to control traffic flow].” Marks or stickers might be applied to floors to indicate where employees should stand.

Employees may return to find plexiglass in office reception areas, hand sanitizing stations throughout, or wall panels heightened between workstations.

Design materials that are easy to clean, such as wipeable vinyls, may become more popular, while decisions may need to be made between carpets and fabrics that soften designs and help with acoustics but are often difficult to clean and sanitize.

“There will be opportunities to reconfigure existing spaces to continue to promote productivity, as well as privacy and good health,” says Zurfluh. “We’re learning, too.”

Richards wonders if working from home will still have its appeal after so many got an unexpected dose this spring.

“Social distancing isn’t natural.”

SASID (Smart and Simple Insurance Development)

14 N. Parker Drive, #300, Janesville, WI 53545
Type: Renovation of historic carriage-works building
Business category: Office
Completed: March 2020 (Phase I)
Interior design: By owner
Furnishings: Lerdahl Business Interiors
Coolest features: Colorful collaborative spaces including two swings for an impromptu meeting with a co-worker. The renovation showcases the historic warehouse’s original wood beams, brick walls, and worn, wood floors from the horse-drawn carriage days. The goal was to keep the furniture lines clean and classic to let the building shine while supporting a fun and interactive company culture.
Photos: VRX Media Group



Summit Credit Union HQ

1709 Landmark Drive, Cottage Grove, WI 53527
Type: New
Business category: Office/financial institution
Completed: March 2019
Interior design: Strang Inc.
Furnishings: M&M Office Interiors: AIS/Haworth Furniture
Coolest features: Indoor and outdoor breakout areas, cafe and celebration spaces. The Be Well Cafe on the first floor encourages employees to make healthy choices; each floor includes staff-selected “fun space” themes, including “comfy and colorful,” “beach,” “sports,” and “zen woodsy.” No corner offices; daylighting.
Photos: Bill Fritsch












Frank Productions HQ

29 S. Livingston St., Madison, WI 53703
Type: New
Business category: Office
Completed: February 2019
Interior design: Strang Inc.
Furnishings: Pieces Unimagined
Coolest features: Adjacent to The Sylvee; a first-floor kitchen/gathering zone for employees is physically removed from dedicated work areas; hospitality space allows the concert promoter to host VIPs without disrupting work; a red ribbon of flooring materials guides building occupants throughout the space, ultimately forming a ramp connecting tiered, open-office areas.
Photos: Bill Fritsch


Strang Inc. Corporate Offices

811 E. Washington Ave. #200, Madison, WI 53703
Type: New
Business category: Office
Completed: November 2018
Interior design: Strang Inc.
Furnishings: Menominee Tribal Enterprises (MTE); Creative Business Interiors; Interior Investments; M&M Office Interiors – Haworth Furniture
Coolest features: Fundamental palette of building materials — concrete, wood, and steel. Maple workstations and tabletops were sustainably harvested from MTE’s hardwood forest; a reception area includes oxidized steel artwork from local artist Cam Anderson; work cafe and “Sync Tank” collaboration areas feature circular wooden concrete formwork from UW’s Hamel Music Center
Photos: Bill Fritsch, Peter Tan


Blackhawk Church Fitchburg

5935 Astor Drive, Fitchburg, WI 53711
Type: New
Business category: Church/auditorium/gathering space
Completed: December 2019
Interior design: InteriorLOGIC
Coolest features: Reused stone from the original farm site; an atrium with a fireplace and gathering space welcomes all members; collaborative seating throughout; fun places for children, learning, meetings, and offices.
Photos: Tricia Shay, Shay Photography

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