As of press time, more than 100 health systems now require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by a certain deadline and, as a result, these same health systems are taking steps to bring administrative personnel back into the building. However, this doesn’t mean returning to the way things were pre-pandemic. Facilities staff that have navigated the challenge of upgrading HVAC and filtration systems are facing new challenges in adapting their real estate to meet new COVID-19-era expectations. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge these professionals face is navigating conflicting expectations about what the workspace of the future should look like. That’s a factor that Jeff O’Neill, AIA, ACHA, CHFM, senior director of facilities at Penn Medicine’s Pennsylvania Hospital, Philadelphia, found surprising. As financial professionals were brought back into the office space earlier this year, the concern over social distancing was swiftly backed by demands for dedicated office space. 

“Everybody wants their own space,” says Richie Stever, CHFM, CLSS-HC, LEED AP, vice president of real estate and property management at University of Maryland Medical System. While real estate and design professionals have watched the evolution of work with a cautious eye, these professionals find that many workers want to have their cake and eat it too: a remote option with a dedicated office that awaits their return. 

O’Neill has found that this desire to have dedicated space gets more intense the closer an employee is to patient care. “Everybody wants to have a dedicated office or workstation right next to the patient,” he says. 

The challenge now is to both rethink what this type of workstation may look like and how to communicate this change to employees. To this end, both health systems are among the many considering a hybrid physical-virtual work space arrangement. 

Administration at University of Maryland, Stever says, is allowing local managers to define whether or not staff can work from home. 

“We’re working with managers to figure out how much space they actually need to have on hand for a team at the peak of on-site personnel. Does a 40-person team need 40 desks, or do you just need 25?” Stever says. “If we can do a hybrid format, then we would probably create hoteling or hot seats, where it’s a shared space available for somebody to work but not that person’s desk.”

Health systems are also now reorganizing office spaces so that certain disciplines are physically co-located, with an option for a remote twist. At Pennsylvania Hospital, for example, O’Neill’s team is pulling finance managers scattered throughout one office building into a dedicated permanent space across the street. Meetings with other departments could still be easily done in a conference room across the street — either in-person or remotely. 

“We’re rethinking the collaboration space as well, from conference rooms to console-type rooms and smaller rooms where three or four people can get in and collaborate,” O’Neill says. 

The key, O’Neill suggests, is to take action on this today, while lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic remain fresh. “We don’t want to just revert back to the way we did things before. We are going to look at how we use our space resource, because it is a resource just like anything else,” he says. 

Penn Medicine’s real estate design and construction department led the way in creating general guidelines for how to safely cohort and distance people throughout the pandemic and is now incorporating that guidance into future plans. However, Stever suggests that facilities professionals supporting this effort can find many of the answers they need within the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Emergency Temporary Standard, which went into effect June 21. 

“They took all the industry best practices for COVID-19 and put it into a requirement,” Stever says. While he notes that the quick turnaround on the 300-plus page mandate may be adding undue pressure to smaller health systems, he says, “I personally think it’s a good idea that we hold the health care field to a high standard.”