Future office picture becomes more transparent

When we first spoke to Tim Lerdahl in late April, the future office design impact of COVID-19 wasn’t as clear as it is now. As the economy begins to reopen, Lerdahl, president of Lerdahl Business Interiors, now says social distancing considerations are creating a new approach to workspace barriers.

In this interview, he talks about these barriers and the likelihood that they will disrupt the open-space, collaborative trend that had taken hold pre-COVID-19.

What has changed since the last time we talked, especially regarding how your customer base views office space amid COVID-19 concerns?

“Over the last month or two, some of the work that we’ve been doing with our existing clients has been to create barriers that are a little higher and a little deeper than what they previously had. Often times, what we’ll do is we’ll take their existing floor plan and create a social distancing plan based on that, and then give that back to our clients so they can implement it. Sometimes, there are no changes needed and sometimes there are.

A reconfigured workspace concept, courtesy of Lerdahl Business Interiors.

“One common theme that we’ve been implementing involves products that allow you to stack on top of, and so we’re creating either a linear plan or a full plan for a taller barrier on top. Most panels, most environments we’ve created have been where the panels are somewhere around your eyesight level — either just above, which gives you seated-height privacy, or just below, which gives you a visual look throughout the space as your sitting. We’ll actually create an insert of glass on top of that panel to give you the same look that you have, but now that sense of privacy between the spaces. We’ve been implementing a lot of that in the last number of weeks.”

Is it plexiglass or just plain glass that makes up that top panel?

“It’s glass. We’ve found that plexiglass, because of all of the PPE [personal protective equipment] and everything else that uses plexiglass, ‘plexi’ has gotten more expensive than glass. That’s just the opposite of what it had been. Some of the more temporary barriers that we’re doing are plexiglass and some of the more permanent designs and looks, where it really looks like it’s part of the system, where it’s beautiful and it’s embedded within the panel itself, those are typically glass.”

What about the newer developments that might have some influence on the long-term use of office space?

“One of the things we’ve transitioned from in the last week or two, is that companies are trying to come up with a plan related to what are we coming back to? It seems that a lot of our clients think that they are going to have less than full capacity within their new operation, but that the sense of privacy that people will want is increasing. We’re in the process of designing a number of facilities where we’re actually creating small, 7-foot by 7-foot private areas with walls that go up to the ceiling, a glass front sliding door, and it creates a situation where people can have a distraction-free work environment. But you still have all the same benefits of an open plan or a cubicle plan where you have a white board, paper management, and work tools in a condensed area.

“We’re essentially creating small, private offices for people to be efficient in, and it’s taking hold really well right now. What’s happening is if a facilities manager typically had 500 employees, they are expecting a large portion to still work at home for the next number of months. For those people who do need to work in the office, creating an efficient and safe location for them is really important, and that’s the direction that companies are going.

“We’ve transitioned from what can we do cheaply to make people feel protected, to ‘Hey, this is something we’re going to have to deal with more seriously.’ How can we have our very valuable employees be efficient for the next year or two when they come into work?”

Are they doing this only for people who have a health-related reason for wanting more privacy, or is it just another way of socially distancing people?

“Part of the benefit of going with an open cubicle plan — an open plan is what we call it in our industry, whereas you might just refer to them as cubicles — is you have a small space. A normal cubicle is anywhere from 5 x 5, 6 x 6, 6 x 8, to 8 x 8, so if you run the square footage on each of those, a 6 x 6 station takes up 36 square feet, plus whatever the aisle space is. A typical private office is 10 feet by 12 feet. That’s 120 square feet, so you start to run that out within facility, and you can see that if you do private offices, you are going to use up a lot of square footage. Whereas going with this new concept of a 7 x 7 private office, that’s 49 square feet.

“So, essentially, you get the benefits of the concept of an open plan but also the benefits of having a door to be able to close, to have telephone conversations, and have, again, if you sneeze or you cough, or if you are healthy and you want to stay healthy, you have the ability to work in an office with the door closed but you can visually still see throughout the space because the door is glass.”

Are there any other requests you’re getting that will reflect what the future office looks like, at least until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed?

“We’re in the process of designing a number of facilities where we’re actually creating small, 7-foot by 7-foot private areas with walls that go up to the ceiling, a glass front sliding door, and it creates a situation where people can have a distraction-free work environment.”
— Tim Lerdahl

“What’s happening is, depending on how you would lay it out, the nature of working collaboratively has been a strong driver in our industry. We have some clients that are trying to reuse their equipment, but instead of being in a bullpen or collaborative environment, what they are trying to accomplish is working in the opposite direction now, reconfiguring the existing components that they have and adding some height.”

Will they be able to adjust back quickly once this fear has subsided? That desire for collaboration is a very human thing and won’t be suppressed for long.

“Agreed, and it’s a tough scenario to work though because we don’t know how it’s going to go. When we talked a few weeks ago, we knew we would learn some things and that things would be trending in some direction. One of the concepts right now is that you take your temperature before you come in to prove that you don’t have a fever. Well, we’re setting up traffic patterns that when you come into the office, you take your temperature, sign into the facility, and you answer a few questions. Have you had a fever? Have you been in contact with someone who is ill? There are four or five simple questions to help to verify that at least you don’t think you have the virus right now. So, setting up a kiosk in the front of a work area, whether it’s admission to an office or it’s walking into a department in a larger facility, there are things we’re implementing so that we have better control over certain things.

“I talked with a client this morning and 50% of their workforce is working in their facility right now and they are hoping to bring that back up again to 80%or 90% in the next couple of weeks. Most of our clients right now are at 5% or 10% capacity and hoping to get to 20% or 30% in the next few months.”

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