Insights

Looking Forward: Workplace Design for the Senses in a post-COVID-19 World

While it is difficult to speculate what the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be, this time sheltering in place and the shift to a virtual workforce will have long lasting effects on the workplace of the future. With the current cultural focus on social distancing and proximity, touching surfaces and sanitation, virtual social events, and access to food, we find ourselves asking:

How will COVID-19 change the way we design for the senses in the workplace?

Our five senses inform our perception of the built environment—and offer clues to how we might approach workplace design in a new era of social distancing. Multisensory connections create meaning and memory, and the more we activate the sense, the more strongly we are tied to a specific moment, object, or place.

While our natural impulse to discover the world around us through the senses will now be mixed with the careful trepidation born from the COVID-19 pandemic, our five senses also offer calming sensory cues—cues that inspire us to experience spaces and workplaces more mindfully. The moods workplaces evoke, brands they represent, and stories they tell will still be driven by the companies and people that occupy them, and with the overlay of a post-COVID-19 society, we believe that design can help reinforce this sensory connection.

Touch

Tactility is an innate human desire and the primary way we interact with materials in a space. Designers may rely on more natural materials such as wood or stone, soft textures such as boucle textiles, and organic forms and biophilia to promote stress reduction and comfort.

Yet the pandemic has heightened our awareness of how certain surfaces can potentially transmit germs. Tactility will become an increasing important component of workplace design as companies consider ways to reduce potential viral transmission—long a common design consideration in the healthcare industry. Materials, surfaces, and furnishings will be more consistently critiqued and specified using a health and safety lens.

For instance, designers are now asking: do soft materials that invite and encourage people to touch harbor the virus longer than hard surfaces? Are inherently anti-microbial materials like silver and copper (and its alloys brass, bronze, and others) better choices? Could things we don’t want to touch (such as bathroom door handles or communal kitchen cabinet hardware) be touchless? Are metal and plastic surfaces that harbor the virus longer fundamentally less safe? Will limitations on what we can touch heighten other senses? These questions and more will lead to innovation in workplace design.

Sight

Sight may be the safest sense for us and could be heightened as touch is minimized.

As the workplace shifts to virtual collaboration through platforms like Zoom, even the most tech-shy are now connecting online and letting co-workers glimpse into their homes. The level of visual honesty, authenticity, and transparency created by working from home may be expected to maintain as we return to physical workplaces

Sight allows us to ask, does the space look safe? Social distancing guidelines may prompt businesses to reevaluate open benching stations that place people side by side. We may see a return of larger work spaces, or at a minimum, more “space between” to allow visually apparent 6-foot buffer zones that suggest proper distance. Other visual markers may include biophilic environments that reduce anxiety and handwashing stations outside of bathrooms as a clear call to action.

Ultimately, we will be seeking visual design elements that suggest and promote safety, health, and well-being.

Sound

A common complaint of the open work environment is noise and lack of auditory privacy. Noise impacts each person differently, and each has his or her own strategy to block unwanted noise.

But now, new sounds may take on heightened concern, such as hearing someone cough nearby. After working from home, the workplace noise level may be overwhelming for some, and a welcome reprieve for others. Our heightened sensitivity to sound will require companies to consider new ways to provide individual auditory control over the environment. This may mean more private spaces to recharge and rejuvenate, more planned quiet zones, or strategically rethinking space planning that groups departments according to verbal communication workstyles.

Smell

The sense of smell informs us about the condition of a space, alerting us to whether a room is clean or dirty, pleasing or unpleasant. As with sound, employees often feel that they do not have adequate control over the various smells entering their workspace.

Traditionally, smell has not been a central part of workplace design, but it may be added to the design toolkit, perhaps taking lessons from the healthcare industry where clean air is a constant concern or from the hospitality industry where smell can enhance the feeling of relaxation and serenity.

Companies may begin to integrate natural aromas that suggest health and well-being. Access to the outdoors through patios or terraces, operable windows where possible, and fragrant plants in open spaces can introduce fresh air and generally set a positive tone. Overall, companies will need to think how smell can enhance a healthy workplace and strengthen the connection to positive memories or experiences.

Taste

Many companies already provide some form of food service, from a simple coffee maker or vending machine to a full cafeteria. In the work from home environment, however, access to food is sporadic, unreliable, and uncertain right now. Sharing meals or providing break spaces in an office kitchen or cafe brings people together and creates a sense of community. Designing spaces to share healthy food options helps build the social and communal aspect of the office—a clear benefit over the virtual office that may be amplified in the workplace of the future. A focus on the community-strengthening attributes of sharing food together may contribute to the desire to return to the physical office.

Looking Forward

COVID-19 already has transformed the workplace, creating an instantaneous virtual workforce. As we slowly move back to the office, we have an opportunity to apply lessons learned form the current health crisis. The five senses inspire ways to enhance the physical workplace to engage us holistically and bring us closer together while staying healthy.

About the Author

Haley Nelson, ASID, IIDA, LEED AP, WELL AP, is a Senior Workplace Designer in HGA’s Los Angeles office. For more information on this piece reach out to Haley Nelson.