If we've learned anything about life during the Covid-19 era, it's that there is no silver bullet. What works for one may not work for another. What appears to be a "best-practice" today is obsolete tomorrow.
"At KI, we are listening carefully to our customers and making the best decisions we can based on current information. And as we all know, it changes quickly," said Jonathan Webb, Market Leader, Workplace at KI.
KI is in the process of bringing its own organization of 500 or so workers back to the office, while helping other companies come alive as well. As states are opening in different stages, KI is in tune with what each state is doing and furthering that conversation with clients about what they are doing in their own organizations and what they need.
"It is important for us to help guide our customers through the process in a way that is consistent with their return-to-work strategies," Webb said. “There are all kinds of return-to-work documents floating around out there, and we have our own as well. But they are simply guidelines. Our goal is to help other organizations return safely without compromising the many positives of working together in a shared environment.”
"At the end of the day, we are trying to give people a sense of security and relief," he said. "It's about being empathetic. We need to show empathy for the organizations we are partnered with to safely bring their employees back to work. If we listen and focus on producing solutions that meet the needs of our clients, then I think we've done our job."
As with workplaces, there are no hard state mandates or deadlines when it comes to opening schools around the country. But in speaking with education officials over the past few weeks, Bryan Ballegeer, VP of Education at KI, is finding a general consensus among higher education organizations that there will be updated policies, social distancing protocol in place, cleaning supplies available and maybe one student to a dorm room. Many higher ed officials are trusting that students, when armed with the information they need, will make smart choices.
While this is the case in many parts of the country, it does not hold true for all - especially as new spikes in cases are occurring in different states daily. One example: on May 12, the California State University System chancellor announced plans to cancel nearly all in-person classes through the fall semester at all 23 campuses around the state.
"This illustrates the fluidity of COVID-related changes," Ballegeer said.
Ballegeer's team recently conducted interviews with students from grade three through undergraduates about how distance learning has been working for them and what has not. As far as using the technology, working on projects and staying in a school mode - from all grades - overall, the students said they could do the things, but they really want to get back to campus.
"They miss their friends," Ballegeer said. "They miss playing baseball, hanging out at recess, or goofing off in the cafeteria. And interestingly, most responded that they miss their teachers. Students expressed a need to stand near their teachers, to interact with them in a real way, not just on a computer screen.
"What I will say, even without the interviews," Ballegeer continues, "Educators and even parents obviously know this too, but kids are incredibly resilient - kindergarten through higher ed. So our role is to ensure their safety first, but when it comes to how they will deal with or respond to new COVID regulations put in place or the new furniture put in place, we shouldn't really fear. They will be far better at adapting to it and thriving through it than most of us adults will. As adults, we have pretty much formed our opinions, but kids' natural resilience gives them the mindest of: 'let me just figure it out'."
KI is offering solution ideas to schools that work with the existing furniture in each part of a campus, whether it's KI's or another brand. Using simple, yet strategic furniture arrangements to installing screens and partitions are KI's initial go-tos in solving back-to-school issues in a COVID world.
"We're not going to sprint to make some new product just to say we made some new 'COVID product'," Ballegeer said. "We will do better by our served campuses and their students if we leverage our current solutions and help them think through their specific campus needs. Schools need support in their budgets, they aren't a bottomless pit of money by any means. We're just trying to connect dots. We are continuously posting a lot of information and facilitating or participating in community discussions nationwide. We're pulling educators from different parts of the country to talk about worries, needs, protocols, plans, suggestions. Just putting them in contact and enabling the sharing of information among each other is an approach we're already seeing pay off for our campus partners. All campuses share most of the same struggles and with some schools ahead of others in their approach to a plan, sharing that valuable intel is beneficial to all."
When it comes to the office, Jonathan Webb believes two common themes will rise to the top as companies revamp for a post-pandemic workplace — implementing wellness practices and reducing density in the physical space. Wellness practices, already becoming a priority in the workplace, might now include adding sanitation stations around the building and making sanitation supplies easily accessible. Or, rethinking café layouts to ensure food is prepared and presented in a safe way.
Webb advises that building owners and organizations will need to look at how air flow is managed throughout their space. What can be done to systematically improve the overall health in their buildings?
“I think you’re going to hear more about the health of buildings even more than we have in the past few years,” Webb said. “And whether it’s Fitwel® or Well Building Institute™ standards, or any other standards regarding building wellness, I think you’ll see more organizations pay attention to that. How is that going to impact furniture?”
The move toward less dense spaces might be the hardest pill to swallow for companies.
“We have historically calculated most things in dollars per square foot and have shrunk the amount of personal square footage per employee,” Webb said. “Now, a conference room that used to hold 20 people, will be limited to hold about 8-10 and everyone will sit a little farther apart.”
Technology can be leveraged to create more space between people, to have no physical contact at all — connecting a staff meeting to people who chose not to leave their personal workstations, or who are working from home.
“That’s reducing density in its simplest form,” Webb said. “It becomes a little more challenging when it comes to personal workstations. Employers will likely experiment with different layouts to maximize distance between employees."
Movable and flexible furniture solutions can enable organizations to create distance in dense spaces with one kit of parts, as with KI’s Tattoo line — designed and launched a few years ago as a flexible, freestanding line.
“So, for COVID-related arrangements, we used the same kit of parts to create different layouts,” he said. “Take a benching unit and turn the tables or use storage to create separation between co-workers, or inserting screens. We obviously did not design Tattoo as a COVID-response line. But it is becoming an important line in the KI arsenal because of its inherent flexibility. The same set of parts that we have used to create collaborative spaces and closeness can now be used to reduce density by creating barriers in the space.”
Storage solutions with high back panels are another creative option for dividing space between workstations. Banks of employee lockers can also delineate space and direct foot traffic in ways that support social distancing.
“These are the types of things we’re working on and most of the ideas were born out of different client engagements,” Webb said.
Creating prototypes can be done within hours or a day at KI, and Webb jokes his office is turning into a fort with the accumulation of KI’s prototype pieces around his desk.
“For us, the really important part of this design process is the ability to rapidly prototype. We have our own model shop and testing lab right here on site with our industrial designers and design engineers right here too,” Webb said. “And right now, their role is to help us create some of those solutions with extremely tight timelines.”
KI is also educating its clients on materials that are more readily available right now. "The biggest impact on the furniture industry’s lead time is the limited availability of acrylic, which is being eaten up by every industry,” Webb notes.
"Retail, hospitality ... everywhere you go, people have an acrylic screen in front of them," he said. "So good for the acrylic industry, I suppose, but not great for the furniture manufacturers that need acrylic. But we've been smart about it and took an early inventory stance, and we do have a supply for our clients."
Helping its clients bring new things to light is something KI is proud of - that process of being able to create something from a cocktail napkin sketch or a piece of scrap paper - that's one thing that Webb feels is a stand-out for KI.
"It's a key differentiator for KI," he said. "Our goal is to listen to what our clients are asking us for and work with them to modify or co-create a specific solution to address the issues that are important to them and bring everyone back into the workplace."
Still, with all of the convoluted information out there, what's the point of all these protocols, especially in schools, where the little kids in particular will have a hard time keeping their distance from each other.
"As a former school administrator and in talking with dozens nationwide, that is probably the most difficult part of making a return to campus a reality," Ballegeer said. "The logistical challenges will be the toughest to solve. Whether it's in the halls, at recess or in cafeterias, it's all about minimizing that flow - students staying in their homeroom all day while teachers circulate, and lunch will be brought to them there. But students still need to get out for recess or a break. They still need to arrive to school, whether it's on busses or a parent drop off. So, things like staggered arrivals and dismissals, block scheduling, or rotating the students on a week-in/week-remote schedule are some options administrators are reviewing and planning for now. But if anyone has a guaranteed plan/answer, they would be queen of the world."
While many questions remain for the future of the workplace and education, KI remains committed to helping its customers find the answer.