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After COVID, offices have wider hallways and fewer desks

To make employees feel more secure when they return to work in person, many companies have made adjustments to their offices. These include improving air circulation and moving desks closer together. Some companies are moving away from desks and creating more conference rooms in order to accommodate remote workers who come in for meetings.

Designers and architects agree that this is an opportunity for reflection and experimentation by employers. Steelcase, a Grand Rapids-based office furniture company, has found that half of all global companies intend major office redesigns in the coming year.

"This year caused your to think, perhaps even more fundamentally than ever before, 'Hey! Why do we go to work?'" Natalie Engels, a San Jose-based design principal at Gensler Architecture, said.

Engels emphasizes that not all companies are making significant changes. Engels advises clients to keep in mind what worked and what didn’t before the pandemic.

Designers say that many companies are seeking new ways to invigorate and make their employees feel safe at work, particularly as there is a labor shortage.

This is what prompted Ajinomoto, a food and pharmaceutical company, to redesign its North American headquarters in Chicago last year.

Ajinomoto's employees went back to work in May. They were given a larger building with more hallways and glass panels in between the cubicles. This was to provide them more security and give them more space. The company created a relaxing space with soft music and reclining chairs in a planned area of work to improve mental health. In case clients aren't able to travel, a test kitchen can be wired for virtual presentations. A cleaning crew is on call twice daily, leaving Post-it notes showing what has been disinfected.

Ryan Smith, executive vice president at Ajinomoto America, said, "Maybe it’s too extravagant, but it might provide comfort for those who have sensitive to the idea of returning to an in-person working environment." Smith estimates that COVID has influenced 40% of the design of the new headquarters.

Shobha Surya is an associate manager for projects and sales at Ajinomoto. She finds the space very motivating.

She said, "The office allows you to have a balance between work and family life." "You can focus better here, and there are no distractions."

Surya stated that she is also excited to be back working with her co-workers.

She is not the only one. According to SmithGroup's workplace practice director Lise Newman (Architecture firm SmithGroup), the most important thing that employees miss about office work is collaboration and socializing with their colleagues. Employers are encouraged to build more social networks. Some companies mimic coffee shops with wooden floors, booth seating, and pendant lamps.

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