The Current

Design experts rethink the workspace as pandemic restrictions ease across Canada

Workplace design and safety engineers and experts say the pandemic has forced a societal rethink about what people want from a work space and how to make it safe, inviting and productive.

Human connections, sharing space, air quality some of the workplace concerns highlighted by COVID-19

Nicole Neypes and Mathew Cosar, general manager of WerkLab, in the co-work space in Vancouver. (Gabrielle Rutman)

Originally published on March 11, 2022

Across Canada employers are calling staff back to the office, as many provinces have now rescinded COVID-19 public health orders requiring at-home work options for employees.

By March 21, City of Toronto workers head back to in-person work and Ontario government workers follow by April 4. In B.C., provincial government workers are beginning a phased-in return with offices reopening by March 28.

Workplace design and safety engineers and experts planning for a return to the office say the pandemic has forced a societal rethink about what people want from a work space and how to make it safe, inviting and productive.

Matthew Cosar, manager of WerkLab, a co-working space in Vancouver, says people always came to WerkLab for the social aspect and "club" atmosphere, but during the pandemic he says the need to be near other people became more urgent.

"Post-pandemic, it's about just being in proximity to another human being. Getting out of the house and being in a place of connection," Cosar told CBC Radio's The Current.

At WerkLab people can rent a desk, office or boardroom by the hour.

Gone are the cubicles in co-sharing workplaces like WerkLab in Vancouver's Strathcona neighbourhood. (britney_gill_photography)

"We really want to provide a creative and inspiring place. So in this space, we have about 130 tropical plants that we take care of, nurture and water, like our own babies. [The plants] really are part of, I think, what makes this place feel so alive," Cosar told The Current.

A 10-seat boardroom goes for $45 an hour while unlimited team hot desking, or desk sharing, starts at $600 per month.

There is also a designated meditation area and aromatherapy bar.

Landscape architect Stephan Stelliga says that he opted to rent space because he missed people and needed a separation between home and work.

"I like the feeling of coming home at the end of the day and kind of getting to relax," said Stelliga.

Optimistic about air quality improvements

But while some miss office banter, others fear germs.

Jeffrey Siegel, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto who studies design and air ventilation issues, said he hopes the lessons learned in the pandemic help improve air quality at many work sites.

"I'm most optimistic. People really have had more conversations about filtration and ventilation in the past two years than in my entire career before it," Siegel told Matt Galloway, of CBC Radio's The Current.

Siegel said each workplace has its own challenges to improve ventilation and some would take millions of dollars to retrofit. For example a multi-floor office building with an older ventilation system would need a major overhaul and a factory workfloor may need to be redesigned to keep air clean for all workers.

"Let's look at each building. It's a little puzzle. Let's solve that puzzle," he said.

"There is a lot of different buildings, a lot of different circumstances, a lot of kind of competing issues. If you've got a refrigerated warehouse, all of a sudden ventilation becomes kind of a pretty serious technical challenge to do well."

Siegel sees ventilation as a key, if neglected, part of occupational health, "particularly for a lot of lower wage workers and it is something that we as a society really need to address."

WATCH | Many employees want work-from-home option:

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With pandemic restrictions easing across Canada, companies are preparing to welcome employees back into the office. But many are pushing back and asking for flexible work arrangements, while others are looking forward to going into the office again.

New office designs borrow old ideas

Matthew Kobylar, director for Gensler, a global design firm in Toronto, says the pandemic has inspired other design changes. He helps clients re-invent workspaces as "destinations" with the concept of an 18th-century salon in mind, but with a communal work area, and brainstorming and presentation areas.

"You know, back in the day, people used to get together to exchange ideas, knowledge, share different thoughts and principles," said Kobylar.

Gensler Design in Toronto revamps old-style offices into meeting hubs, like this work space at TextNow, an Ontario company. (Tom Arban)

He designs offices that offer a "vibe" or "club feel" — often with a central hub — that he said promotes productivity.

Kobylar said the hunger for that human connection is strong.

"Humans throughout our millennia of existence on the planet, we've been social creatures. We wanted to be close to each other," said Kobylar.

He predicts the fear of shaking hands and socializing mask-free will fade.

"I think we will get to a point where some of those old social norms do come back," he said.


Written by Yvette Brend. Produced by Alison Masemann and Anne Penman. 

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