COVID-19: What will a return to the workplace actually look like?


As millions of Canadians continue to work from home, business leaders are looking ahead to a return to the workplace. Not surprisingly in the current context, there are more questions than answers: when will we be able to start working together again?; how restrictive will public health guidelines be?; will we need to make material alterations to the office space?; will everyone be confident enough to return? will they even want to return?

Creative businesses have traditionally operated on the premise that collaboration and collective creativity happens in person, not exclusively through laptop or phone screens. And while many architecture and engineering firms across the country have adapted remarkably well to the challenges of working from home, the sudden change was made on the understanding that it was temporary. It now appears likely that the experience of working together in offices and studios will be changed for the long-term, possibly even forever.



Our consultants at Innovia have been working with clients to help them begin to envision their ‘next normal’ office and what this means for their business. To do so we think about it in terms of an ‘STW’ framework;

  • The Space
  • The Team
  • The Work



Start with an audit of your physical office space. For architects and engineers, this is will be the easy part of the exercise. Assess how your team is currently arranged, how much space each person occupies, and what a 2metre physical distancing requirement would mean for your current layout and achievable capacity. It’s more than likely that some changes will be required in this regard and so it’s prudent to map out possible scenarios and solutions in advance.

Think also about how your teams are located/co-located. Can movement around the office be minimized by merely swapping some people around? Identify in which spaces and places in people congregate most and whether this is by choice, or by necessity. Are there physical bottlenecks, for example any tight and busy corners? What are the surfaces and equipment that people need to touch most, and are there effective ways to promote additional hygiene and cleaning practices for these?



Next, consider your employees and realize that returning to the workplace may mean very different things to different people. Business leaders will need to be extremely mindful of the varying degrees of stress and anxiety this will place on certain individuals. The health and status and medical needs of your team remain their own private information. However, people should also feel like they can speak directly with leaders if they have particular concerns or risks in this regard. Think about how the firm has traditionally handled situations surrounding sick leave, medical appointments, disabilities etc. If your record suggests room for improvement, start improving now. Ensure that everyone feels safe, secure and respected as they assess their own personal situation and needs when thinking about coming back to the office.

Be mindful too that people with young children, older relatives, family with disabilities or illnesses will have particular concerns. Empathy and understanding will go a long way towards ensuring that everyone can ultimately find a new normal that works for them. Additional flexibility relative to how things worked before will be necessary. Remember, ‘normal’ has shifted for everyone, so it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that certain rules and norms will have to adapt accordingly.



We are encouraging our clients to think specifically about the particular work that they do, and how this work happens. Some practices will be more collaborative than others. More complex projects typically involve larger, multi-disciplinary teams and many meetings. Does your firm routinely make models, do your teams collectively review materials samples? What are the particularities of your design process and service delivery that have been most negatively impacted these past months? Does a return to the office resolve these, or do other plans need to be set in motion to adapt them to the new reality?



Innovia is recommending to our clients that they start developing recovery plans as soon as possible.  A team or committee charged specifically with the logistics and considerations of returning to your office space will be an important part of this. They will need to keep abreast of government directives and any new regulations regarding the workplace. We help with the establishment and coordination of these teams, and in preparing appropriate and clear communications to your colleagues, clients and collaborators.


Let’s talk.

Written by John McKenna, Consultant
May 28, 2020