How Graphics Can Support Re-entering the Workplace

By Julie Maggos, SEGD, LEED AP | Senior Director of Experiential Graphic Design

Original photography © Alex Grummer. Confidential Client, Seattle.

As we grapple with the new realities of returning to the post-COVID-19 workplace, the IA Interior Architects EGD (experiential graphic design) team is exploring how graphics and signage may help to direct and inform employees to new policies and protocols that will be in place upon their return.

IA’s Revived Workplace program addresses every aspect of the workforce experience as facilities and workplace experience managers prepare their teams for the eventual return to the workplace. The EGD team's role in this, namely the Protocol Signage & Graphics Turnkey Solution, centers around a signage kit of parts that can be easily adapted to the clients and brands with whom we work. Focusing on navigation and change management, the efforts can be informed by the IA Workplace Readiness Assessment and Action Plan, or adjusted to fit into an existing schema. The package of signage and wayfinding tools offers an expeditious solution for organizations eyeing a return to the workplace in the next few weeks or months.

Never have clear signage, wayfinding and graphic communication in the workplace been more important. Initially, there is a need to quickly adapt with immediate signage that is direct and informational. These solutions will likely be temporary, lower cost design interventions, but they don’t have to be austere. As an example, messaging on hand sanitizer stations can match the voice and style of your organization. A simple graphic and message that fits your brand can go a long way to being authentic, reassuring, and motivating for employees.

After associates settle in, longer term solutions can be softer, friendlier, and more about adapting to the new normal. These solutions will be more integrated reminders about codes of behavior. For example, in order to remind everyone to continue to wash hands for 20 seconds (a habit we should all adopt permanently), why not install an engaging graphic of song lyrics next to the sink. (here are some suggested songs to sing for 20 seconds) Or a light in the faucet can change color as you place your hands underneath and only turns off after 20 seconds have passed.

Because we believe that this adaptation should be an ongoing effort beyond the initial signage install, we challenged our team to brainstorm solutions for helping employees feel comfortable and safe in the changed workplace. We embarked on this endeavor in the same manner that we would approach any of our design projects—by focusing on the human experience. We explored both simple-to-execute and more complex concepts, and we put no limit on the imagination of our team members. We simply asked: how can we use design thinking to improve the revived workplace experience?

 Below is a visual compilation of a selection of our ideas:

The return to the workplace will be a time of healing. 17% of Americans are reporting that their mental or emotional health has already suffered as a result of school/work closures, and for many this is directly tied to feelings of isolation. A modular, tackable community wall for mementos, remembrances, tips, memes, and everything in between can serve as a way to bring people together, even as some continue to work remotely. Documenting and sharing the contents may be an important part of the office culture, and could help bring your team together. Managing one-way communication regarding office protocols, news, and visitor information in a visible but reassuring way. In the physically distant workplace there will be a lot of rooms that need to operate at lower capacity than their furniture was designed for. Intentionally blank placemats are an easy way to mark areas that should be kept clear to promote safe distances between people. The phrase “This space left intentionally blank” strikes a tone that is serious but also slightly humorous. Customized stickers can help visually remind users of the newly-adopted behaviors, and be easily removed as the practices are phased out or adapted. These would be especially useful in communal work spaces, phone rooms, huddle rooms, kitchens, and visitor-facing areas IA’s Protocol Signage Package has sets of stickers for this purpose. As practices like hand sanitizing and hand washing can reduce instances of respiratory illnesses by 21%, it is likely that behaviors like this become a permanent fixture in our workplaces. This should be encouraged. Unfortunately, most signage related to identifying hand sanitizing stations is clinical and uninspiring. New graphics can be created to match your organization’s style, brand, and voice to ensure that your employees will remember to follow protocols and feel good doing it. Elevator etiquette was complicated enough before social distancing. With its introduction comes the potential for complicated and uncomfortable queues, procedures that are organization-specific, etc. Laying out floor graphics, elevator cab graphics, and accompanying stair signage can guide visitors and employees on those “new” rules, making the immediate vicinity more comfortable and safe. It’s not always easy to remember to stay 6 feet apart. Different sets of markers denoting appropriate spacing can be a useful and potentially fun reminder for the team. Now is not the time to cut loose. But whether it’s Kevin Bacon or some other cultural icon that fits best within your organizational culture, floor graphics that help your team keep their distance in high traffic areas have the potential to be a fun addition to your space. Some workplaces have narrow hallways and rushing employees. To maintain social distancing protocols and help avoid potential collisions, integrate reflective surfaces and mirrors. Applying vinyl strips of color or pattern to handles and areas of high touch acts as a subtle reminder to people that they should wash their hands afterwards, and to keep these areas cleaned. Separating silverware into small, pre-packaged boxes ensures people will touch only the set they pick from the drawer. Packaging them in reusable/washable boxes minimizes waste and helps with organization. While the novel coronavirus’s lifespan is significantly shorter on cloth than on many other surfaces, contamination from jackets and coats is a genuine concern. Even as the pandemic dies out, it’s possible that associated stigmas surrounding personal space and belongings outlive the virus by a significant margin. Devising a system to contain potential external contamination from coats or jackets could be as simple as utilizing a washable garment bag that is coded by color or number and an associated dropbox. Can awards for participation still exist in the adult world? Why not! Leave ribbons at teammates’ workstations as a small nudge to reward or remind them of various preventative measures: "Didn’t Touch My Face;" "Got Some Space," "Kept My Distance;" "20 Seconds of Me Time." As teams consider short-term solutions to enforcing social distancing protocols in the office, projectors certainly offer a flexible solution that can be updated regularly. Projecting 6’ grids onto the floor allows users to gain spatial awareness and quickly understand the number of people that can be in a space together. These grids don’t need to look like something from a heist movie: IA's creative technology team has already implemented similar solutions that are color-changing, branded, and interactive. Restroom Lyrics Most of us are aware of the 20-second hand-washing rule that has been embraced by the CDC (and was developed as a result of two different research studies), and their recommendation that people sing the “Happy Birthday Song” twice while washing their hands. Workplace experience managers can take these lessons and apply them to the workplace by applying thoughtfully-designed graphics of those lyrics in office restrooms to inspire users to wash their hands more effectively. To avoid touching multiple surfaces, many are predicting that door foot pulls will become more commonplace. While some users may have experienced these before, they are not common yet in the workplace. Environmental graphics can draw attention to these pulls and indicate alternative opening options while being a part of a more hygienic, user-friendly office. Braille presents a unique challenge as we alter our workplaces in response to recent events. One possible solution exists in the expansion of workplace wayfinding apps. Including text-to-speech features that utilize audio notifications to help vision-impaired users navigate space could help with the change management process for current employees, and the guest experience for any office visitors, reducing the amount of public surfaces someone needs to touch. Wrapping high-traffic surfaces with a digitally printed thermochromic vinyl won’t kill any germs in your workplace. But, it will identify surfaces that have recently been touched, which could encourage users to embrace new cleaning protocols, utilize door pulls, visit hand sanitizing stations, or take other small steps that lead to a healthier, safer environment.

Offices are gathering places that establish the culture of the organization, and we know that graphics can help magnify and solidify that culture. During this next step of returning to the office, IA believes it is important to proceed thoughtfully, lead with empathy, and focus on the best possible solution for the human experience.

Julie Maggos, SEGD, LEED AP

Senior Director of Experiential Graphic Design

Senior Director of Experiential Graphic Design Julie Maggos helps organizations communicate their messages within the workplace, share their story, and engage employees and visitors. She has over 18 years of experience leading teams that bring brands to life within the built environment for clients, including LinkedIn, Motorola, GE, and McDonalds. She is responsible for defining their desired experience and planning and executing visual design solutions appropriate to context. Julie has built the EGD practice at IA to be truly integrated throughout the design and delivery of all projects. She is co-chair of the Chicago chapter of the Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) and has spoken at CoreNet, IIDEX, SEGD, and NeoCon events.

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