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The Healthy Hybrid Office

by Keith Fentress / April 1, 2021

Many organizations consider a hybrid office to be the ideal post-pandemic workplace. The hybrid office enables employees to work from home and the office a portion of each week. One key consideration for the design of a hybrid office is the health and wellness of employees. In my view, the hybrid office should be “people-centric,” meaning that the design should consider the needs of employees first and foremost.

There is no better time in history for such a people-centric design to emerge in the workplace. With the stress everyone has been under during the pandemic, the upheaval in our lives, and the anxiety about returning to the office, a design that embraces people will help put employees at ease and will help them transition back to the office more smoothly.

A well-designed hybrid office sets the stage for a successful long-term telework arrangement. Let’s say an employee comes into the office two days a week and works from home three days a week, which would be a typical arrangement in a hybrid setting. This employee would skip the commute three days a week, which reduces stress and lowers work-related expenses for travel, clothing, and food. Working from home also helps employees more effectively blend home and work life, which increases employee satisfaction. Finally, in working from home, employees gain autonomy at work, which is a significant positive motivator for employee satisfaction and retention. All of these features combine to make long-term telework a healthy benefit of the hybrid office.

Healthy Hybrid Office Features

So, what features go into a people-centric hybrid office? Below I discuss several design elements that can help the hybrid office reflect the concept that people truly are an organization’s most valuable asset.

Biophilic Design

Biophilic design involves integrating natural features into the workplace. A connection with nature helps reduce stress and provides a more healthy and productive environment. To achieve this goal, workstations should be exposed to natural light and window views, if possible. Fresh air should also be circulated throughout the space. Plants in the workplace can help employees relax while also cleaning the air. Natural features such as wood and stone have a more organic feel and help incorporate the benefits of the outside into the workplace. Color palettes that mimic nature are also becoming more popular, especially tones of blue and green. If your climate is mild even part of the year, outdoor seating and walking areas are also a positive addition. The bottom line is that bringing the outdoors in creates a more calm, healthy, and productive setting for employees.

Workstation Adaptability

Furniture and features that enable employees to customize their surroundings can increase comfort in the workplace. The ability to adjust workstation and chair height is important for both physical and mental health. Sitting for prolonged periods at a time can cause stress on the body, so employees should be encouraged to get away from their desks and to be more active.

An ideal arrangement is a workstation that can be adjusted to sitting or standing, a keyboard tray and mouse pad that can be moved for comfort, a chair that can be adjusted to fit an employee’s body, and workstation shelving and filing that can be easily adjusted and changed. All of these features also help employees feel more in control of their environment.

Workstation Variety

In designing a hybrid office, it’s important to have a variety of spaces to accommodate different workstyles and the various tasks that must be performed. Some employees work better in a more social work setting, while others need a quieter space. Some tasks require individual work, while others require brainstorming or collaboration. Employees should be able to move easily between the various spaces and workstations that best suit their needs.

Comforts of Home

Because many people have been at home for over a year during the pandemic, some organizations are incorporating homelike décor into the workplace to help bridge the gap between home and office. Having an area with couches, overstuffed chairs, and other home décor can help employees feel more comfortable when returning to the office.

Connect Employees

We have been isolated during the pandemic and a large part of the appeal in coming back to the office is the opportunity to reconnect with coworkers. Workplaces should be designed to make these connections possible by having a variety of collaboration spaces and informal gathering areas. One of the lessons learned during the pandemic is the importance of social connections. When people connect, they create a stronger culture and community. If possible, an employee’s time spent working from home should be dedicated to tasks requiring concentration. The hybrid office can then be designed to promote collaboration and connection.

Recharge Rooms

Another space type to consider incorporating into the hybrid office is a “recharge room” where people can go to take a break, recharge, and reduce stress. These rooms could be simple homelike seating areas such as those described above. For an even more peaceful ambience, the room could have a meditative feel and incorporate elements such as plants, salt lamps or oil diffusers, and perhaps a water feature. Some organizations are even incorporating nap rooms into the workplace given the benefits a quick “power nap” has shown to have for both health and productivity. Recharge rooms are not rooms for technology and work – they are areas to unplug, unwind, and recharge for brief periods during the workday.

Workspace Distancing

Prior to the pandemic, the goal of many organizations was to reduce the space footprint by bringing employees closer together in large open office areas, with collaboration spaces set up along the perimeter. Such densely populated offices are now being questioned in light of concerns about the spread of germs. A goal of the hybrid office is to de-densify and provide more space per person. This does not necessarily require offices and workstations to be larger. It does require the circulation pathways between workstations to be larger so that employees are spread out more. In some organizations, the distancing also includes a return to enclosed offices and workstations with higher partitions. Not only do these features provide appropriate distance between workstations to help reduce the spread of germs, but they also provide for more visual and audio privacy.

Prevent Germs

Even after the pandemic is over, our workplace should not be a source of undue worry about the spread of germs. As mentioned above, providing more distance between workstations is one way to prevent the transmission of germs. Another is to have an office with uncluttered work surfaces (and “clean desk policies” to promote this) that are easy to clean. This will require scanning and imaging to reduce the need for paper.

There are also antimicrobial surfaces that can be applied to more public areas, such as the reception area and break room. Such surfaces combat germs. Touchless features should also be incorporated into workplaces where possible, especially in the restrooms. Touchless technologies can also be used on the main doors to gain access to the workplace, or to call an elevator or open an office door without using hands.

Hand sanitizer stations and wipes to clean surfaces can also be distributed around the workplace. As a policy, anyone who is not feeling well should be able to work from home. Gone are the days when people showed up to work whether they were sick or not. The pandemic has proven that we can still be productive from home without bringing our spreadable germs to work.

Returning to Work

I believe that everyone will feel somewhat anxious when returning to work after the pandemic. Our routines and schedules have changed and our lives have been centered around our homes. Going back to the office will change everything again, and change always introduces a certain amount of stress. Designing a hybrid office with fixtures and features intended to help reduce stress will be a benefit to the workforce. And a workforce that is less stressed and more satisfied will be a productive workforce. In my opinion, promoting the health and wellbeing of employees through workplace design is a winning solution for all organizations.

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Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include organizational development, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, and snorkeling.