Designing a safe work space for the post-pandemic era

May 5, 2020, 11:11 AM UTC

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As the U.S. and Europe contemplate re-opening businesses, a raft of reports have counted the modern corporate office among the casualties of the coronavirus.

“COVID-19 will change the entire notion of offices,” declares the headline atop an article by my Fortune colleague Vivienne Walt. The New York Times concurs: “The pandemic may mean the end of the open-floor office.” Vox has proclaimed “the end of the office as we know it.”

How will post-COVID offices differ from pre-COVID offices? Let us count the ways.

What office?

There seems to be broad agreement that post-COVID offices will contain far fewer workers than pre-COVID offices because employers and employees alike have discovered that working from home is far easier and more efficient than anyone imagined.

Vivienne cites a projection by Global Workforce Analytics—a San Diego, California-based research firm—that the percentage of U.S. employees working from home will surge to as much as 30% by the end of next year, from only 3.6% before the pandemic. Kate Lister, GWA’s president, says the WFH “genie is out of the bottle and it is not likely to go back in.”

Staggering back

In China, where many major employers began re-opening offices last month, some companies, including food delivery giant Meituan Dianping, have divided their workforce into A, B and C teams and rotated different teams into the office on different days. Former Trump national economic adviser Gary Cohn recommends that strategy for U.S. firms.

The Washington Post reports that IBM, which has begun bringing workers back to locations in China and South Korea, has developed a set of global standards for returning to offices, including prioritizing employees who need access to on-site labs or equipment and staggering arrival times to avoid congestion in elevators.

Improved circulation

Gensler, the global architecture firm, recommends businesses consider upgrading office air-filtration systems—adding filters and disinfectant systems or speeding the rate of air exchange—to reduce airborne and surface contaminants.  

Meanwhile, Cushman Wakefield, the global real estate services firm, recently introduced an idea it calls the “6 foot office project” to help clients prepare for returning to work. The concept calls for using visual displays such as colored carpets to create visual boundaries around desks and signs to create one-way corridors for workers moving around the office.

On that note, say goodbye to “hot desks,” as well as open floor plans, elbow-to-elbow seating, corporate common rooms, and in-house cafes. The Times reports that desks in post-pandemic offices will be prescribed and come with built-in hand sanitizers and plexiglass sneeze-guards.

Hot air

The Post reports that Goldman Sachs is considering adding infrared body temperature scanners to some offices and may provide virus and antibody testing kits to employees once they’re more widely available. What’s unclear about many of these changes is how much they’ll reduce the risk of contagion in the office. 

In Hong Kong, where I am based, we’ve been back in the office for more than a month. The entrance to our building’s lobby is guarded by an infrared scanner that beeps if you walk in holding a hot coffee—but no one comes to check when it does.

At most companies, the people in charge of remaking offices for the post-COVID era are designers, engineers, architects and human resources managers—not epidemiologists. And as the Times notes: “The actual disease experts say that a virus-free office environment is a pipe dream.”

Clay Chandler



Micrashell from Production Club
"Want to get some air?" Production Club's Micrashell

Social ex distance 

LA-based design studio Production Club unveiled a prototype for a suit that could protect revellers and ravers during the pandemic. Called the Micrashell, the hip hazmat suit even has a built-in vape system and a tube for drinks. Our cyberpunk dreams are coming true.

Private space

NASA picked three private firms, including Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, to design landing modules for the national space agency’s upcoming moon landings. The three companies—the third is Alabama-based Dynetics—will compete to present a winning lunar lander.


Speaking of Bezos, this visualization of the Amazon CEO’s $139 billion wealth is incredible. Created by web developer Matt Korostoff, every pixel on the scroll-through chart represents $1,000. It’s a powerful data visualization and a wonderful bit of visual storytelling.

Twice a Fortnite

Fortnite’s ardent expansion into music entertainment is worth watching. Last week, the battle royale game created a new concert mode—party royale—that removes the guns and allows players to enjoy live performances from major musicians. As Wired says, multiplayer games are the new “third place” for a generation.

Close encounters

Apple and Google shared examples of how the duo’s COVID-19 contact tracing apps would notify users of possible exposure to the virus. The companies also outlined six principles any public-sector partners would have to uphold in order to use the app.


May: China Fashion Week showcased models in a room with no audience this week, as the event shifted online. Berlin’s Pictoplasma Festival has optimistically rescheduled to August 20.

June: The month-long London Festival of Architecture is running a stripped back event online this year, with the core public programme moved to (hopefully) later this year. The San Francisco Design Week, which starts June 16, has gone digital too. Also, London Fashion Week: Men’s would have walked June 12-14. Instead, it will sit online.

Ongoing: Virtual Design Festival, a collaborative effort from Dezeen, Dutch Design Week and Design Indaba continues to exhibit work from a global roster of designers; the Serpentine Gallery has taken Cao Fei’s Blueprints exhibition online


"Evidence demonstrates that while workers of color are often the first to be fired during economic downturns, they are often the last to be rehired during recoveries."

Thus warned the Center for American Progress last month. Far from being an equalizer, as someone once suggested, the pandemic is the latest crisis to highlight the structural inequality that leaves minority groups particularly vulnerable. The NYT columnist Charles M. Blow highlights some of those issues here. Besides the structural issues, response mechanisms to the pandemic, such as how ventilators are allocated, are susceptible to bias too. 

This week's edition of BxD was edited by Eamon Barrett. Email him at

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