How to Create Safer Amenities

The Role of Gathering Places in the Era of COVID-19 and What Not to Lose Sight of in the Process

May 5, 2020

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Matthew SomertonChris Beza and Paula Buick.


The massive remote work experiment precipitated by the pandemic underscores an important point — “heads-down” work can be done effectively from home for many people. Yet there is also recognition that in-person relationships play a critical role in team dynamics and overall effectiveness that can’t be emulated through remote work. In The Village Effect, author Susan Pinker argues that face-to-face personal relationships largely determine our health and performance. This is especially true for knowledge workers, the fastest growing segment of the workforce, who generally require heads-down and in-person collaboration in their work.

These developments will likely accelerate the “pass through” office, where people gather in-person to connect, ideate and socialize, but do focused individual work at home. Amenities are a crucial part of this shift. For some companies, especially in tech, amenities already comprise roughly 50% of their footprint, a number that will likely grow for other industries, too. In this light, it is no longer useful to treat amenities and workplace as distinct entities. Amenities, as social and collaborative gathering spaces, are in fact the new workplace.

With these ideas in mind, there are two important areas to consider in designing amenities: requirements for safety and meeting strategic future needs:


Making Amenities Safer

One major challenge is obvious: infection risks increase with social density. While basic measures like cleanings, masks and hand sanitizer will play a critical role in how these spaces are safely used, there are other strategies which may be employed to reduce the risk of infection:

Supporting Safe Behaviors

Amenity spaces are by their nature informal and flexible, but it may be useful to introduce a few parameters to help people use them. For example, designating more intentional arrival points to amenity spaces, where hand sanitizer or other hygienic supplies are located, can help. Additionally, furniture and fixtures can be fixed to the floor to support social distancing, taking care to maintain natural feeling arrangements that still feel intimate.

Localized Teams and Amenities

Companies could adopt a more compartmentalized workplace approach that groups 6-8 employees dedicated to a single project together. This type of work arrangement requires smaller shared work areas that may serve as a safer alternative to open workstations of dozens or even hundreds of employees. These types of spaces could be carved out within amenity areas and may be more comfortable for workers, as they’re familiar with their close colleagues, the hygienic precautions they are taking and have more control over their work areas.

Improving Indoor Air Quality

The pandemic has heightened interest in air handling approaches, but indoor air quality has long been known to have a demonstrable impact on workplace performance, productivity and health. In general, natural air change through operable windows and the creation of negative pressure by moving more clean air into a room are both effective strategies, and these may be augmented by the use of UV light and HEPA filters to clean air. Companies may also choose to incorporate digital displays that illustrate indoor air quality to help assuage anxieties.

Sensor-based and Touchless Technologies

Smart sensors can be used to alert people when a room has exceeded its recommended social density. These sensors could also be used for other purposes like identifying the best spaces for work based on the noise level, brightness and temperature. Touchless technologies on doors, elevators and other building elements can also reduce the risk of contact infection in more highly trafficked common areas. Medical device companies have pioneered a number of innovative touchless technologies to reduce infection, improve security and help people living with physical impairments, some of which could potentially be used in novel workplace setups.


Designing Amenities to Meet People’s Needs

With contact tracing, increased testing, and more effective treatments the threat of coronavirus will eventually recede, enabling people to feel more comfortable in group spaces. Beyond the scope of the pandemic, amenities will need to be responsive to people’s broader needs and desires in spaces that may last for generations. There are several ideas to consider when thinking about how amenity spaces can best achieve these needs:

Determining the Right Scale

Massive amenity spaces like dining halls, while common in large corporate settings, are frequently impersonal spaces that hold little appeal as an alternate work location. Smaller, authentic feeling spaces like cafes are often more conducive to work – both as people are eating, but throughout the day as well. These amenities can be made more convenient by distributing them throughout the workplace rather than concentrating them in one area. If larger spaces are required, care should be taken to break them up into clusters of more human-scaled settings, which creates more flexibility and makes even large gatherings feel more intimate.

“Whole Life” Amenities

Workplace amenities have evolved over time from places intended for socializing like game rooms, to spaces meant for collaboration and innovation such as maker spaces and meeting lounges. Now, the focus of amenity spaces is increasingly shifting more toward shared activities and learning opportunities that are also rewarding and enriching on a personal level. This may encompass programming like horticultural therapy or dance and yoga classes. Frequently whole life amenities are accessible to the public as well as staff and support a more holistic sense of wellness. While public access is not practical or desirable in the current crisis, it is worthwhile to consider how amenities may transition to a more public-facing stance as the pandemic recedes.

Neighborhood Integration

Amenities can connect workers not just with each other but also with the surrounding community, particularly when the amenities are situated at street level and open to the public. This will gradually become more feasible after the immediate pandemic threat has faded. The more the line between amenity space, workplace and the neighborhood is blurred, the more staff can feel like an authentic part of the community. By curating smaller, more distinct offerings, street level amenities can serve as an inviting extension of the surrounding area rather than as a psychological buffer between a workplace and the public. Where space is limited, dual use spaces that might be used as a conference room during the day and a space for public programs or community college classes at night may be an option.

Connecting to Nature

People have an intrinsic affinity for natural settings and research demonstrates that workplaces that provide a connection to nature are healthier and more creative and productive. Natural light, views of nature and amenities like greenways, parks, planted courtyards and gardens can all tangibly improve the quality of the workday. Access to nature may be particularly relevant now, as the pandemic has increased stress levels and concerns about indoor air quality. In this environment, natural settings can serve as a place of respite and relative peace.

With work tilting towards a more distributed network of at least semi-remote employees, the purpose of amenities remains the same—to bring people together and keep the conversation going. While there are health and safety concerns that need to be addressed in light of the pandemic, it is important not to neglect the vital role amenities play in creating more dynamic, collaborative workplaces that respond to people’s deeper needs for connection and community. Safer amenities which blur the boundaries between workplace, neighborhood, and the outdoors can lead the way in creating better work environments through the current crisis and beyond.


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Banner image courtesy Timothy Soar.


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