El Monte, CA

How to Plan Office Layouts in the Age of Covid and Wellness

Don Simkovich


Remember how the office was a place where employees had to go to get work done? Stay at home orders have now been in effect for almost a year and office expectations underwent dramatic changes.

Employees discovered flexible and remote working arrangements while large and small companies have repurposed office space.

How do you know if employees should work remotely or work at home?

Start with the purpose of why physical offices exist.

The Office as a Hub of Authority

Think back to the 20th century which was the age of heavy industry. What innovation in the early part of the century revolutionized an industry?

The assembly line with Ford Motors led to the mass production of the Model T and later to the dominance of Detroit as Motor City. But there were other industries, notably steel.

Steel mills in and around Pittsburgh, Birmingham, Alabama and Gary, Indiana produced steel used in skyscraper construction, the airline industry and the space program.

These were products that were produced in a linear, step-by-step fashion with a large volume of production needed to satisfy the marketplace. Companies were run in a strict hierarchy with the chain of command coming from the executive offices overseeing production and sales. Secretaries sent the orders to mid-level offices in a top-down style reminiscent of the military.

A brief history of the office is described by Regus, a global office space provider. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright brought a sameness into offices with rows of desks looking the same. As automation increased and computers were used more in the 1980s, offices were built around technology instead of people.

History shows how change moves slowly, but moves nonetheless.

The Rise of Flat Organizations

Heavy industry evolved from the 1970s through the 1990s into more specialized production and organizational models flattened out. Tech start-ups with an informal, group approach to projects had limited budgets and needed to focus their attention on proof-of-concept projects and not fancy offices. This led to the normalization of open office layouts and reporting to work in jeans and casual shirts.

The corner office lost importance and communication flowed in a diverse path.

Covid brought decentralization home.

Telecommuting became a trend beginning in the mid-90s as email sent via the Internet became normal and expected. The office didn’t have to be the central authority for inventory, especially in media. Images and documents could now be attached and sent digitally.

Storage improved, lowered in cost, and larger files were able to be transmitted meaning an employee could work remotely and still have access to mission-critical files. But most companies still expected employees to use the office as the primary place of operations.

And then Covid hit early in 2020.

State and county governments issued mandatory stay at home orders and employee wellness took on a completely new meaning. Small and large offices were shuttered and re-opened slowly, urging staff to stay home if they had a cold or simply didn’t feel well.

Protocols were put in place to direct foot traffic inside offices and internal meetings now took place over Zoom. Home offices were no longer an optional luxury but became a necessity as coffee shops and co-working spaces shut down in many states.

The company office and executives were held to a minimal level of functioning, like ensuring the mission and vision were carried out and leading the staff in carrying out tasks. Co-workers had to relate online instead of in person until safety measures were put in place and people felt comfortable relating in the main office.

The Age of Decentralized Company Offices

Not everyone is going to work in isolation indefinitely. A reason why is found in the most basic of human behaviors. The Harvard Study of Adult Development confirms that people want social interactions in their work life as well as their personal lives. Healthy relationships reduce stress, and we feed off the energy of those in our department or colleagues from down the hall.

Tips from an office supply company in El Monte, California, 2010 Office Furniture in an article Repurpose Your Office Space for a Post-Covid World, note that it’s important to evaluate what office strategies worked with remote staff by leveraging the “advantages of a decentralized or flexible work environment.”

Lessons learned include:

  • Keeping corporate goals as clear as possible
  • Using employee and customer communication as a strategic tool
  • Trusting employees to do what’s expected of them in the flexible office environment

Laying Out a Plan

Think of the executive offices as the hub in a wheel instead of a top-down workflow. The corporate mission, vision and directives flow out from that hub into the surrounding workstations and remote offices.

This is an advantage in modular equipment that can be expanded to accommodate more staff or adjusted for fewer workers. Designate workstations that can be shared with people who come in part-time and ensure that proper sanitary measures are taken for cleanliness.

Central meeting areas should be well-equipped with monitors and equipment to allow remote employees to participate.

Modular meeting rooms can be used in open office environments and a central area can be designated for employees to come in one or two days a week to pick up memos or hard copy marketing materials.

In the digital age, and especially with information companies, the purpose of an office is like a central rallying point while workers are equipped with their laptops and portable files to work in a setting that suits them best.

Don’t overlook the entry points like a lobby or foyer. If clients enter they can step into a welcoming world of office designs. 2010 Office Furniture notes these include:

  • the modern abstract office with bold shapes and colors
  • the modern industrial office with a minimalistic look like brick walls and open venting in the ceilings
  • private and semi-private office layouts using cubicles

Remember that an office reflects a company’s brand. The way it’s presented can boost the morale of workers who then positively relay the brand promise to customers, vendors and each other. This is a subtle but important competitive advantage in an age where brand loyalty easily shifts from one company to another.

3 Office Trends for 2021

A new term has surfaced, “resimercial.” This is where residential elements are infused in a commercial office setting.

Natural lighting is a proven mood booster and should be maximized through the use of larger windows or solar tubes and skylights.

Smart products like interactive whiteboards will become more common.

Treat office layout and design as a part of the company’s mission and not just an afterthought. It’s a smart move in the age of a decentralized workforce.

Image used: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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I interview entrepreneurs, and dig into the news around Southern California, giving a voice to business owners, artists and more. I also co-write the thriller novel series Tom Stone Detective Stories.

Pasadena, CA

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