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In a survey by global design and architecture firm, Gensler, only 12% of U.S. workers want to work from home full-time. Most want to return to their offices and workplaces – but only with changes that protect them from Covid-19.

An abundance of floor graphics reinforcing safe distancing, corridors with one-way foot traffic, and mask-wearing co-workers are likely to be among the differences we see at work. It won’t just be the look of our offices that will be different, how we do what we do in those spaces will change as well.

Please don’t touch

A key to safety is limiting touchpoints. That’s generating some intriguing ideas of what you could expect in the new touchless workplace. The ubiquitous restroom messaging requiring all employees to wash hands before returning to work will likely resonate deeper and wider in most workplaces. MarketWatch makes a similar prediction that “consumers will make contactless experiences and sanitizing a part of daily life.”

We only need to look at Hong Kong to get a sense of what that could be. After the SARS epidemic in 2003, major public health changes were put in place, including more automatic doors and no-touch payment methods.

The future may already be in our hands

Personal devices will play a much larger role at work. Their Bluetooth, Wi-fi, and LTE capabilities provide easy-to-use and well-established access technology for just about any kind of touchless solution.

It’s not hard to envision gaining entry to a building using Bluetooth to open an automatic door, eliminating an ID card swipe or fingerprint scan. Apps could also find their way into ordering food from company cafeterias or providing touchless operation of vending machines and office water dispensers.

Wave it on, wave it off

Even simpler than using our phones will be using our hands. While hands-free bathroom fixtures were gaining popularity well before the pandemic, more advanced gesture control technology is already being implemented in some buildings. Lakeside Center, an office and retail center under construction in Columbia, MD, will include touchless controls that allow people to ride elevators and open doors with a hand wave. 

Meet your new co-workers, Siri and Alexa

Voice-activated virtual assistants, like those we use at home and in our cars, could also be joining us at work. Their track record of integrating voice control with a variety of devices could make them useful in instances where apps or gestures might be too clunky or responsive to work. In offices and conference rooms, your voice could dim lights, turn on projectors, and adjust the temperature. Gensler envisions expanding voice-control to also handle both touch- and non-touch-related tasks, “Combine these two elements in a workplace setting and the potential is immediately appealing: “unlock my office,” “order my usual lunch in 10 minutes,” or even “setup a meeting for me with John tomorrow at 3 p.m. in a conference room for two.”

Welcoming change

While much of the Touchless Workplace has come about in response to the coronavirus, it could provide benefits well into the future. Limiting the need to touch surfaces and objects will reduce germ-spread in general, keeping us all healthier. It can also make the time we spend at work more enjoyable and efficient. For example, the same technology that monitors occupancy to support social distancing could also be used for something as routine – but essential ­– as finding an open conference room. So, while our first day back in our old workplace may feel more like the first day in a new one, we may find that many of the touchless changes we encounter may be well worth embracing (although not literally).

For those of us returning to our offices, the workplace we step back into will look different from the one we left.

Desks will be farther apart. Hand sanitizer dispensers will be as ubiquitous as light switches. And floor signage and tape lines will physically define boundaries within even the most open of office plans.

It will be different in another way that may not be so apparent: It won’t be as green as it was before the pandemic. Nearly all of the changes we’ll encounter are being made to keep us safe, which is obviously important. At the same time, what’s helping keep us healthy could have the opposite effect on the environment.

For instance, coffee shops are no longer accepting reusable containers and restaurants are relying on disposable menus, plates, and plastic utensils. Even if you opt for takeout or delivery, your meal will likely be packed in a Styrofoam container that makes its way to you in a plastic bag. The result is a lot more waste.

One word: Plastics

All of that waste is being dramatically compounded by a growing reliance on single-use plastic for so many other items, such as bottled water, bags, and packaging. Trying to stem that rising tide with recycling is also becoming more difficult as material-recovery facilities (MRFs) have slowed or halted their operation while they struggle with keeping workers safely apart along recyclable sorting conveyor belts.

We can still make a difference.

Here’s the good news: As we all head back to work, we can bring sustainability with us. Here are a few simple things each of us can do to flatten the Plastic Curve.

Wear a mask. Wash a mask. Consider wearing a mask made of washable fabric in the office. It’s one way to protect your co-workers. Plus, you can launder it after two to three uses, instead of disposing of it.

Commute cleaner. Employers are incentivizing their employees to drive to work rather than use public transportation. However, a healthy compromise could involve employers also providing incentives for walking or biking to work, both of which limit social contact and greenhouse gasses.

Use, clean, repeat. Consider bringing your lunch and snacks with you in a reusable container. It can be safely cleaned with soap and hot water, ideally in your dishwasher. There are also reusable solutions for food, cleaning, and personal care items to help cut down on plastic use at home. TerraCycle’s Loop program delivers products in durable containers that you ship back for cleaning and reuse once the product is gone.

A number of companies are releasing touchless water dispensers, which will provide a safe way to use a reusable cup or beverage tumbler at work and avoid cracking open and disposing of a bottle or can.

Starting July 13, existing and new Bevi machines will enable you to use your smartphone to dispense beverages so you never have to touch the machine. We think that’s a great way to stay hydrated, stay safe, and contribute to sustainability at work.

Sustaining sustainability.

We know a lot of businesses and people were committed to creating sustainability at work before the pandemic came along. We believe that how you stay healthy and how you head back to work are your choices to make. And while things will certainly look and feel different when we walk back through the door, many of those differences can create new opportunities for sustainability. We’re committed to finding them, and sharing them with all of you.

If you’d like to learn more about sustainability, we’ve put together a number of good reads on the subject.