(Image: Inside the Living Lab at Armstrong World Industries' corporate campus in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where the company is looking to implement ideas for the post-COVID office and gauge employee feedback.)
As the COVID-19 pandemic fades and vaccination rates improve, employers are working on plans for re-entry with an opportunity to reset previous environments. The benefits of working from home have given many people options for a more convenient, controllable and customizable workspace. Employers who want to attract and retain top talent will have to ensure that any work environment provides similar comforts.
For some people, working from home has been a tough challenge. Noisiness, lack of space and family responsibilities are among the factors that could make some pine for their own cubicles. Many others, though, have been enjoying the ability to move freely about their homes, shifting from desk chair to couch or kitchen stool at will, breathing air they control, savoring the view from a favorite window, or taking their laptops out to the deck, patio or terrace.
Ideally, the post-COVID office would replicate these benefits of working from home, while also providing the social interactions and collaborative opportunities that factor into creativity, innovation and productivity.
The challenge for designers is how to choose the best solutions that make a real impact on people’s daily lives at work. Partly thanks to the green building movement, modern office design can be highly flexible, humanistic and appealing, and the options are many.
Employee surveys can offer some guidance. The ceiling and walls manufacturer Armstrong World Industries, for example, released an employee survey earlier this year which indicates employees expect their workspaces to support personal wellbeing, as well as assure health and safety, when they return in person.
Armstrong is also observing the modern post-COVID office in action through the day-to-day experiences of employees working in its new Living Lab at the company corporate campus in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The Living Lab is the precursor to a renovation of the Armstrong headquarters building in partnership with global design and architecture firm Gensler. The experience from the Living Lab will inform this renovation.
The Living Lab began to take shape in 2020 with an initial focus on leveraging Armstrong’s sustainable products and other building elements to create indoor and outdoor workspaces that foster collaboration. That includes a working lounge, a working cafe, and rooms set aside for large and small groups, in addition to 24 individual work stations. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the program grew to include a focus on Armstrong’s Healthy Spaces air quality products. Sound, light and climate control are also key features.
Employees began to occupy the Living Lab in May, and they are encouraged to provide detailed feedback on their experiences. Two key themes are already beginning to emerge.
One is information: During the COVID-19 pandemic, large swaths of the working public immersed themselves in the news. Armstrong employee feedback indicates people still expect a high level of information about the quality of their indoor environments, and the Living Lab is designed to deliver it.
Displayed at the entrance of the Living Lab is a WELL Health-Safety Rating Certification seal from the International WELL Building Institute, which Armstrong received in 2021. This certification provides a framework for organizations and communities to prepare for a safer and healthier future. When you see the WELL Health-Safety seal, you can feel confident knowing the space you’re entering is putting your health first, Armstrong says. Once inside the Living Lab, the first thing employees see is a dashboard displaying detailed information about the Lab’s indoor air quality, developed in partnership with HVAC services firm Trane.
Along with this displayed information, key design elements help to create a sense of well-being: Ample light beams in from the windows, work stations are spaced out for safety and privacy, and Armstrong products like AirAssure ceilings and VidaShield UV24 air purification systems are put to work maintaining air quality. The Living Lab also includes an outdoor working space fitted with furniture, power and Wi-Fi.
Employees took notice from the start. “The biggest elements that caught my attention were how fresh the space felt and smelled, the flexibility of the workspaces, and the natural light,” said Alexandra Waltemyer, Armstrong’s senior manager for Healthy Spaces strategic initiatives. “As soon as I walked in, the space was bright, and it felt clean and fresh. It even has a visible dashboard showing all of the measures for the indoor air quality, so I not only sensed the fresh air, I could visibly see things like temperature, humidity and particle count.”
Waltemyer also noted the ability to move between different environments, a key element that makes the Living Lab similar to the work-at-home experience. “Having the option to change between a private focus room, having a space to collaborate, or even working at the counter in the work lounge for a change of scenery has really helped keep me productive and inspired throughout the day,” she said.
One especially interesting aspect of the Living Lab is its potential to inform and influence employees beyond working hours.
“Having the indoor air quality of the space I’m entering visible to me as I enter has made me crave even more knowledge of the air quality in the spaces I’m entering,” Waltemyer told 3p.
Meredith Baxter, Armstrong’s campus experience manager, had a similar experience. While citing the ability to move between individual and collaborative spaces as a key feature, she also emphasized the informational element.
“Every day upon entering the space, I can see a real-time air quality score that provides a sense of security of the overall ‘healthiness’ of the space,” she explained. “The visibility of the variables that impact the score make me wonder how I could incorporate similar measures in my home to identify areas for improvement to benefit the overall wellbeing of my family.”
All in all, the Living Lab experience suggests that companies can leverage their products and skills to become a trusted partner for employees who seek reliable, accurate, and useful information about their indoor environment.
Socially responsible companies have long sought to attract top talent by informing and engaging on company-sponsored projects, including volunteering for student mentoring or environmental measures such as tree plantings. They have also had to prove that their quest to improve their social and environmental performance is one of deeds matching words. Now, the challenge becomes more complex.
As employees return to the post-COVID office — at a time when millions of job openings suggest companies are once again in a fierce competition for talent — executives will have to prove they are not only great places to work, but welcoming spaces where employees can be and feel their best, too. The Living Lab offers a testing ground for how to do that. While the initiative is still in progress, early insights indicate that by providing access to information and bringing the comforts and security of home into the workplace, companies can begin to show their responsiveness to the expectations of a new generation steeped in the lessons of COVID-19.
This article series is sponsored by Armstrong World Industries and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image courtesy of Armstrong World Industries
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.