The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has flipped trends in office space and design. While technology advancements have led to more collaborative and mobile work environments, with open floor plans and benches for groups to gather, the health crisis has raised concerns about close contact with others. Many employees have been working from home, skyrocketing the need for home office furniture and leaving many cubicles empty for months.

While no official guidelines have been established, many offices are looking for ways to implement social distancing measures in the workplace. The need for collaboration is still crucial for many businesses, so rethinking office design is a first step to providing employees a space to meet in person in the COVID-19 era.

Rethinking Workplace Design

While a pandemic shutting down businesses and preventing in-person meetings may not have been a significant concern for many a year ago, the COVID-19 crisis has revealed the potential for future disease outbreaks. Digital collaboration tools provide co-workers, consultants and clients with a way to discuss matters via no-contact virtual communication. Videoconferencing has become dominant. Companies in all sectors will likely see an increase in phone or video meetings even after the current pandemic subsides.

Additionally, large gatherings in meeting rooms with close seating are likely a habit of the past. Collaboration in conference rooms may trend toward smaller groups and spaced seating, with some joining by video. Disease exposures will be reduced by cleaning of rooms before and after meetings. Other aspects of the office buildings will also be rethought: how many passengers in an elevator, self-cleaning buttons and doorknobs, and the airflow through all spaces.

A New Way of Doing Business

With so many virtual meetings and ongoing travel concerns, companies are likely to see a reduction in travel expenses. Many presentations, trainings or other meetings traditionally gathering large groups of people will be reduced or eliminated in the coming months. The commercial real estate market will experience lower demand as companies begin to shrink their corporate footprints in favor of work-from-home options.

Not only could companies see reduced overhead costs, lower real estate expenditures and declining travel expenses, but employees will have more free time because of a reduced commute. Time spent traveling to collaborate with clients in person can often eat up hours, if not days, which employees now may be able to use more efficiently on a project or to improve work-home balance.

Additional Safety Measures

The modern-day design of an office may help reduce the spread of germs, but employee habits can also reduce the risk of disease transmission in a workplace. Hand sanitizer, face coverings and other personal protective equipment are likely to be common in a post-pandemic environment. Employees will be encouraged to complete proper hand-washing and to wear a face covering in situations where social distancing may be difficult or impossible. Reception desks may have a temporary or permanent protective screen to help reduce risks of virus transmission during frequent personal contacts.

Before individuals begin reentering the office, workplaces may also require visitors or employees to have their temperature taken, wear a face covering and, perhaps, sign a form stating that they aren’t experiencing symptoms or haven’t had recent exposure to someone testing positive for COVID-19.

While there are uncertainties during this current pandemic, social distancing measures and a rethought office design are under consideration at workplaces globally. Health concerns are at the forefront of thought leaders in the design industry, with open layouts on the outs and video-conference rooms or private, large workspaces growing in popularity.


The pandemic has changed how work is done, but adapted processes can keep projects moving. Phase three of our corporate headquarters is case study in new ways of thinking.

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Trevor Hoiland is a design manager at Burns & McDonnell. With over 25 years of experience, Trevor specializes in creating original design with an inside-out approach. Trevor works with a wide variety of clients on design-build projects for spaces of all sizes.