Planning Ahead: Federal Workspace Adaptations Amid COVID-19 Concerns

June 29, 2020 | Ann Dimiero

For the last decade, the federal government and many companies have been working to reduce their footprint by implementing open spaces, smaller offices, and shared resources. The result is that we are now too close together for current COVID-19 CDC guidelines. Now, after months of social distancing, as companies and agencies begin returning to their offices, we need to consider how we are adapting to meet a rapidly evolving health and safety standard. So how do we ensure our employees, coworkers, and federal clients are safe?

The reality is that while many in the corporate world have already started migrating back to the office, the federal government has chosen to take a much more deliberate pace in their return. This presents a unique opportunity for analysis of the heightened standards for the physical, mental and emotional well-being of their employees, all while so many federal offices are still unoccupied.

First, agencies should consider who of their workforce will be returning to the office full-time to guide the space planning. This process can be aided by surveying staff to assess their needs and challenges which often include fear of infection, public transportation, dependent care, and school/childcare availability. Key groups will return to the office environment while other workers or even departments may continue working from home, maybe permanently. Management may need to consider additional PPE options for those in close quarters and groups like janitorial staff who have added risk of exposure.

Second, work environments may require physical changes or renovations. Often a longer lead action item, improvements to HVAC and airflow will be key in improving air quality but may be temporarily addressed with medical-grade air purifiers or UV-C lamps. Common spaces, including kitchenettes and restrooms may need touchless features installed. Some advocates are even suggesting that the use of amenities like shared refrigerators may need to be discontinued all together. In the past we designed to the highest density, but moving forward the standard office environment may need to be easily adaptable for the well-being of all its employees. Design teams may need to reconfigure the office space, with new layouts, changing the work setting, reducing the population, and dividing hoteling and benching office settings.

Lastly, as we start to plan and redesign spaces, interior designers and owners working in office environments will look at materials that are easily cleanable and can be disinfected without the integrity of the item being destroyed. Soft surface and porous materials (fabrics, carpets, upholstery, etc.) may be substituted with high performing textiles. If items cannot be replaced with laminates, painted metals, and other hard surfaces, they may need to be moved or removed entirely to reduce frequent handling/exposure.

The office environment, regardless of whether it is a corporate or federal worksite, will require new safety protocols that still allow its employees to be creative, collaborative and productive. It is our responsibility as design and construction managers to thoughtfully guide the planning and implementation process and assist our federal government partners develop a physical environment that matches their mission; a space that is both adaptable and resilient.

About the Authors

Ann Dimiero, NCIDQ, has over 30 years of experience on federal, defense, and commercial projects providing interior design management, federal government design, space planning, facilities management, and construction management services. She recently served as the change management and move manager on the GSA, Department of Health and Human Services Renovation and Relocation Project in Philadelphia, PA, winner of the CMAA Mid-Atlantic Project of the Year Award. Ann holds a BS in Environmental (Interior) Design from Syracuse University, and is a Certified Professional Ergonomist.

About AFG Group, Inc.

AFG Group, Inc. is a woman-­owned firm focused on multi-­disciplined program, construction, and relocation management, with a national portfolio of work in healthcare, laboratories, courthouses, educational facilities, and government buildings. With 30 years of business acumen, AFG has earned a reputation for providing strong expertise, responsiveness, and project execution that helps owners navigate through complex design, procurement, construction, and activation processes.