UI/UX Design
May 21, 2021

Workplace Experience Design 101: Post-Covid Edition

Madeline Ury

One of the biggest shifts since March 2020 has been working from home. It was quite a transition for many people. Some are still working remotely, but we are also seeing employees return to the office. While there is still a long way to go, and the workplace will likely never be the same, it is a beacon of hope for what the future of workplace experience design looks like.

You may have never thought about the design aspect of eventually returning to the office, but the organization and overall design of an office setting does affect productivity at work. In order to make the transition back into the office a little more smooth, workplace experience design is definitely going to look different post-Covid -- hopefully for the better!

What is workplace experience design?

"productivity, connectivity, safety, efficiency, flexibility"
Workplace experience design prioritizes all of the above!

Workplace experience design is an approach to office design that focuses on the employees themselves. It is a combination of all the elements that contribute to people doing their best work, and feeling their most confident as professionals in the office.

These elements include how the office is structured physically, allowing employees to work collaboratively when needed and individually when needed. It also includes the amenities provided by your office, such as gyms, wellness centers, or kitchens. Amenities should make your office a more productive space for employees, even if those amenities are not as “flashy” as those listed above. This can include:

  • Efficient wifi to make connecting easy.
  • Updated schedules -- for example, times that conference rooms are booked should be easily accessible.
  • Flexible, customizable workspaces -- rolling chairs or lightweight tables that can be moved around to encourage collaboration.

A flexible workspace with the elements above (and many more!) is a successful method of engaging employees, when collaborating and when working individually. Cubicles encourage isolation, and open offices are great in theory, but they often put pressure on employees to be social all day long at work.

The bottom line? Workplace experience design focuses on creating spaces for people. We all know that Covid-19 has changed the way we work and where we work, though. So what does that mean for office spaces now, and what will a return to the office look like, in terms of design?

What does it look like post-Covid?

Working from home has kind of become the new normal, so envisioning a future where we are back in the office full-time is weird. But will we return to the office full-time? What will change about office spaces, and how will that affect employees? Here’s what we think you can expect in terms of workplace experience design as we transition out of full-time WFH:

  • Hybrid work communities
  • Rebirth of individual office spaces
  • Simple amenities

Hybrid work community

two coworkers work socially distanced wearing masks
A hybrid work environment may look like a few days working in the office and a few days working from home each week.

 While employees have embraced the work from home life and actually found it to be very productive, that element of community is missing from the workplace. The sense of belonging is gone and connecting with coworkers is not as natural as it once was.

To create a hybrid work community -- and actually emulate the community vibe -- companies are working on what Work Design describes as placemaking: spaces that support “health, happiness, and well-being.” To do so, they are taking the main elements of placemaking and adapting them to the post-Covid workplace.

  1. Uses and activities: Collaboration is key. Individual work will no longer be the main focus of office work -- those individual projects can be done at home! This calls for an open but flexible office floor plan, with collaborative lounges and lunchrooms.
  2. Comfort and image: Post-Covid, health is more important than ever before. That’s why offices will structure themselves around offering substantial sunlight, outdoor spaces, access to gyms, and even indoor air filtration devices.
  3. Access and linkages: People love the no-commute aspect of working from home, so companies will cater more to that, offering frequent WFH days. Co-working spaces may be on the rise, too.
  4. Sociability: Zoom calls are not going anywhere, but there are also new collaboration-based tools that will better help foster communities online. Companies are very focused on making sure every employee is fully engaged and having their voice heard, even in a hybrid environment.

Working from home has been a surprising success, so why make people adapt to the office again when they’re just getting comfortable? There’s no reason why we should stop what’s working right now, which is why hybrid work environments are bound to become much more common!

Rebirth of the cubicle

post-Covid means workplaces with defined boundaries, like this one that offers individual & collaborative work spaces
This office is a great example of a somewhat open floor plan with clear boundaries and lots of distance between personal work spaces.

Over time, collaboration in the office has emerged as essential. Because of this, many companies shifted away from cubicles and towards more open concept offices.

Unfortunately, it looks like post-Covid life will usher in the rebirth of the cubicle and more defined boundaries between personal and collaborative office spaces. It’s what is necessary to keep people safe when returning to the office, but those collaborative spaces will not completely go away. In fact, collaboration is still just as important, if not more. It’s what is driving people to return to in-person work, so while it may not appear to be the safest option at first glance, designers are prioritizing safe ways for coworkers to connect.

Creative Director of Emblem Jeffery Braun believes that less time in the office makes that time more valuable, and people want to return so they can collaborate, connect, and interact with their coworkers. He believes that going forward with these hybrid work environments should mean time in the office is for collaboration, saying “So, while the traditional cubicle or assigned desk will never truly go away, time in the office should be spent on collaboration and our designs for these spaces should follow suit.”

Simple amenities

a coffee machine brews a midday latte
More safety precautions means it might be time to say goodbye to your midday latte pick-me-up from the office coffee cart -- at least for a little while.

Many office environments will likely revert to more simple amenities post-Covid. For example, if your company provides lunch, you may see boxed lunches or “grab and go” style meals as opposed to the full-on lunch buffets and food courts we are used to.

This, unfortunately for coffee lovers everywhere, may also mean no more coffee carts or office kitchens to whip up your favorite latte when you need a pick-me-up. This won’t be forever, though, and there are certainly safety precautions that can be put in place to keep a favorite midday treat available in offices, so we’ll see what happens!

Additional amenities to promote health and safety will likely be implemented as well, including hand-washing infrastructures, mental health design support, and indoor air quality and office risk assessments.

Like we said, these changes won’t be novel forever. As we all have since 2020, we will adapt to the changing office environments and our new normal. Companies and employees everywhere will eventually find what makes them the most productive and efficient, while also keeping everyone safe and comfortable in a post-Covid world.