Designing for a Post COVID-19 World

June 13, 2020

What we do?

At 3Equals1 Design we design workplace environments for PEOPLE. This will not change because of the new situation we find ourselves in. This is a new problem that we must solve which is what we have always done. As a company we are presented with a space and a brief and using our knowledge we look at that space, see the issues and find solutions. Physical distancing is a new solution that we now have to apply to a space for the foreseeable future. But is this a bad thing? Or can we look at this as an opportunity to become more creative in our field? Does this provide us with a chance to be industry definers instead of being defined by the industry?

What is the problem? What are some solutions?

The problem that we are faced with now is COVID-19. To address this problem we have to implement physical distancing within the workplace providing enough space to satisfy at least two meters, use materials that can help ease the viral load, in addition to taking personal responsibility for our own health and hygiene which ultimately impacts the workplace and our colleagues.

  • DESK SCREENS - The main product that I have continuously seen presented as a solution by a variety of manufacturers are desk screens. The idea is that they provide a sense of cover from immediate environment around one’s desk, but what happens when that person gets up out of their chair to walk around the office? Where is the protection then. Does science back up these solutions? According to a “NIH study found that the Sars-CoV-2 virus survives…up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless-steel surfaces.” [Gray. R, 2020] We need to be informed on the science when suggesting products to our clients because if we don’t, we aren’t presenting them with a solution.

  • COPPER INSTEAD OF STAINLESS STEEL - The use of copper on touch surfaces such as door handles, this is because copper and its alloys brass and bronze are naturally anti-microbial. Copper can kill viruses in two hours or less. However, when it comes to the COVID-19 pathogen it can in this case take up to 4 hours to reduce the viral load. [NEJM, 2020] But does this mean we have to suggest to our clients that they have to change every door handle in the office to copper? If they do decide to do this, what do we then door with the stainless-steel door handles?

  • HAND SANITISER STATIONS - Placing hand sanitiser stations around the office to be used as when it is needed. The alcohol content in hand sanitiser kills 99.9% of bacteria (as they proudly display on the bottles). However, due to the high alcohol content, as I am sure we have all noticed, it dries out our hands which in turn kills the good bacteria that we need on our skin. The science suggests that its better to use soap and water as its gentler on the skin and therefore, in the long run, better for us. Here is a link to an article explaining the overuse of hand sanitiser;

  • UPHOLSTERY - The type of fabric that we use may need to change. Harmful bacteria can be held in the fibres and when sat on can release a cloud with this potentially harmful bacterium. As with stainless steel vs copper, there are anti-microbial options available. The type used on soft seating environments within hospitals [Figure 1.] and GP practices as it is easy to clean and does not contain many crevasses for the bacteria to survive and multiply. Do we alter all the soft seating fabrics within our environments? Should we make an effort to further understand the science behind the use of antimicrobial's in the work place? I learnt from a recent Humanscale webinar lead by Jane Abernethy, Humanscale Chief Sustainability Officer, about the use of fluorocarbon for textile surfaces, due to its anti-adhesive properties. This means microbes are unable to adhere to the surface which results in them being unable to multiply but it also means that they are relatively easy to clean through friction in addition to a disinfectant spray.

  • UV-C LIGHTS - The ability to kill bacteria is what has propelled the idea of use of UV-C lighting in the office place. The suggestion has been that UV-C lights be fitted into the office and turned on either at the end of the day or during the lunch break. But, the use of the light is extremely dangerous,this is the light ray that causes skin cancer and it can be very harmful to human eyes. [Gorvett. C, 2020] [UV-C disinfection | Phillips, 2020] Would we be preventing one illness but replacing it with another further in the future? However,there is a specific wavelength of the light that is harmful to bacteria but is not to human skin because it is unable to penetrate the surface of our skin. This is range of light is 201 – 221 nano meters.

  • 6 FEET OFFICE - The 6ft office is a potential solution put forward by Cushman & Wakefield. Creating an environment which allows for the adherence to the 2-meter rule put forth by the government. It includes signage, hand-washing facilities and the use of desk covers which are to changed everyday. But what do you do if you do not have enough square meterage to adhere to these guidelines? If your a company of 5 working in relatively close proximity due to the landscape of your office how do you implement this plan then?

  • SIGNAGE - Placing signage throughout the footprint of the office to illustrate the requirements of physical distancing. But is this needed? Are we not all aware of what we have to do? Hasn't it become second nature? Or is it a case of "out of site out of mind" in which case signage is required but could we design it so that it doesn't resemble warning signs? I know I wouldn't feel at ease entering a workplace and being confronted with a warning sign about being there and interacting with who is there. Through the use of such signage aren't we in danger of sacrificing our mental health for our physical health? Instead, could we take a softer approach? Continuing to design environments the way we always have, designing spaces to convey a certain feeling, thinking about how we journey through a space, how we control the journey through the space? Having gentle reminders about the protocols that are inline with the companies identity and branding so it feels more personal to the viewer?


How are other countries tackling the issue of returning to the workplace?

South Korea has been extremely effective in tackling this virus, so much so as of the 17th May they have had a total of 264 deaths, with 11, 142 cases in a population of approximately 51,269,185. How have they managed to do this? Mainly, contact tracing through the use of an application in addition to widespread indiscriminate testing. Due to these measures the country has recovered very quickly with little impact on the country as a whole.

Let's look at a country much closer to home, Germany. As of the 21st May Germany have had 8,309 deaths, with approximately 179,000 confirmed cases of the virus in a population of 83,783,942 people. Germany like South Korea had wide scale testing in addition to contact tracing application from very early on. Although, like us in the UK, the country did shut down and now is cautiously starting to reopen its facilities, such as small shops, hairdressers along with schools while maintaining physical distancing protocols of a minimum of 1.5 meters. While the world is watching with bated breathe to see what will happen as more and more people venture out again.

Germany are not the only European country to implement a minimum distance of 1.5 meters, as opposed to here in the UK the minimum 2 meter distance rule. In The Netherlands they also use the 1.5 meter rule. While in Italy it's a minimum of at least 1 meter. Could we suggest this distance to our clients which could mean that more people are able to be in the workplace, therefore, allowing a sense of normality to return quicker for more people? Or do we have to apply this to a case by case basis depending on the size of the company as well as its physical office footprint? Can there be a one size fits all solution?

Across every sector we are scrambling to introduce physical distancing of at least 2 meters, but what happens if in 2 months Parliament says we can reduce to 1.5 meters and then in another two months after that, we can reduce to 1 meter or be back to what was pre-COVID-19? Does this mean we have to keep changing and then once we've settled change again? As with the signage, could this effect our well-being in the workplace and how will that benefit in the long term?

What can we do?

I think we have to ask the questions, I hope this blog is a starting point of asking those questions. I encourage you to do your own investigation and further reading into the research surrounding the Coronavirus, whether you are designer or a current or a future client.

I do encourage us as designers and as an industry to see this "new normal" as an opportunity for us to be creative and push the boundaries. I encourage us to continue to think outside the box through this unprecedented time.

I hope that you, the reader, along with all of us here at the 3Equals1 Design continue!

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