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Four Things: How COVID-19 Will Change the Built Environment

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered where and how people work. Within a couple of weeks in March 2020, most U.S. office workers were working from home, and soon afterwards, pundits began predicting a future in which offices were obsolete and remote work was the new normal.

In late June, the ACEC Research Institute gathered together four experts on office design and construction to discuss the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on The Buildings We Live and Work In.

The panelists — AKF Managing Partner Dino DeFeo, Thornton Tomasetti Co-CEO Peter DiMaggio, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Associate Director Arathi Gowda, and HR&A Advisors Partner Kate Wittels — concluded that some significant pandemic-induced changes will be permanent, but that offices will remain a core component of American business.

Here are four conclusions from the panel discussion:

Flexibility. Many employees enjoy working remotely. Full-time remote work, however, can feel isolating. And employees with children at home face additional challenges. Additionally, employees find they miss previously under-appreciated benefits of office work, such as social interaction and face-to-face meetings. As a result, work location will become more flexible; sometimes at the office, sometimes remotely.

Office-Size Shakeup. Companies that move to an all — or mostly — remote workforce could reduce their office needs to little more than a meeting space. Firms giving employees the flexibility for part-time remote work will likely maintain their current space requirements, due to continued social distancing or most of all employees keeping their offices/desks. And companies that return to the “old normal” will actually need more space due to increased health and safety concerns.

Common Space Changes. Health and safety concerns will force generational changes on how office buildings are designed. Not only will buildings need HVAC systems that purify air, but airflows will need to be re-engineered to reduce the circulation of pathogens. Elevators will have to be redesigned to carry the same load but with more distancing, bathrooms will need vacuum toilets to reduce contaminated “spray,” and common spaces, such as kitchens, will need pathogen-resistant surfaces.

Traffic Flow. Commuting could become better…or worse. If fewer people commute or commute on fewer workdays, traffic congestion may decrease, reducing the need for new transportation infrastructure projects. On the other hand, if commuters stop taking public transportation out of fear of crowded spaces and drive their cars instead, we will need more and better roads.

Click here to view the roundtable discussion.

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