We are on the verge of a design shift, driven by the global pandemic that gradually permeates into our lives. In just a few months, COVID-19 has changed how and where we work, forcing different and flexible ways of working. So, as we start to settle down into a new normal, our attention now turns to the short and long-term trends and developments that will impact the kind of workplaces we will inhabit.
In the short-term we must focus on pandemic-proofing the office, this means hygiene will be at the heart of planning. Studies, concepts and strategies indicate that common themes for an ideal ‘return to the office’ solution include touchless technology, cleaning policies and re-planned areas to maintain social distancing with a one-way circulation.
We have all tried to find the right balance between safety and efficiency, at the same time not losing sight of what is really needed. According to Enrique Soler - Head of interior design at Willmott Dixon Interiors “the entire industry is being flooded with types of acrylic screens, hand sanitiser dispensers and distancing signage, to the point where it feels like the toilet roll purchasing frenzy of a few months ago”. At this point we begin to ask ourselves, what will individuals really require from their place of work...(Illustration courtesy of Propmodo)
The big question: How much value do employers businesses derive from 'social capital', face-to-face interaction and the physical provision of a workplace for people?
After months of forced participation in the world's biggest 'Work-From-Home' experiment, we must now contemplate the long-term design aspirations as we begin to slowly transition back into the office, according to Statista “ As of March 17, 2020, 11 percent of people in Great Britain were working from home as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak. Despite this, 44 percent of people advised that their workplace was still open, but with tough new measures likely to come into force in the coming weeks, it is likely this share will fall” - published by D. Clark.
Homeworking has exposed a potential alternative to the office but considering that this is not our first or last pandemic, we should ensure the office industry is prepared and has the capabilities to keep turning, no matter the circumstance.
For a multitude of businesses, there is no choice. People must work from a central point to conform with data security. Additionally, supporters of the office believe that we gain crucial lessons from generations who believe in the workplace as our second home. It is the place in which we feel safe for a large proportion of our lives. The place where we solve problems, create solutions with like minds and form bonds that last; the only way in which Millennials and Generation Z’s can gain experience, growth and recognition.(Illustration courtesy of Marish)
And we should not forget that occupiers and landlords are committed to their office space until the next lease break or redevelopment – it simply makes commercial sense to utilise these assets.
With that in mind, planning for the future is crucial. The post-COVID office will need to meet the needs of those who return, and be safe in case of repeat pandemics.
Redefine, not redesign
We envision the workplace accelerating towards multi-purposed activity-based working, this will result in a reduction in traditional desks/workstations. So, before we jump into the physical obligations of our office furniture, let’s weigh up the fundamental tasks...
Mitigate the risk
The main priority and biggest challenge for post-covid offices is controlling risk. How are we able to control contamination within open plan offices and high-density buildings? Can we control the potential infection in hot-desking environments, communal and social spaces?(Illustration courtesy of PavelVinnik)
Being safe & feeling safe in the workplace
Employees will feel that they are unable to return to an office if it is not safe. So, how can we make offices safe and still promote togetherness, innovation and efficiency?
How to adapt what you have
Here are a few pointers & illustrations showing different ways in which you could adapt your existing office set-up to create more space and separation between occupants.
• Reducing density: Alternate or separate seating positions to avoid face-to-face exposure.
• Back-to-back desks currently located in the centre of an enclosed space, are you able to turn these around so the people face the walls?
• Hot desking: Eliminate/adapt an owned workstation approach and reduce shared desking or introduce a strict clean-in and clean-out measures. Check out Abintra, they use live floorplans to indicate which workstations are available and have not been used since the last cleaning cycle, enabling staff to choose a desk, reassured that the area has been cleaned.
• The return of the cubicle; One of the most crucial changes may turn out to be cardboard or plastic dividers that convert open-plan offices into something more reminiscent of the 1980’s.
Though not pretty, cubicles facilitate ‘one-way’ circulation routes so people can move around confidently.
• Encourage distancing by introducing natural barriers. Think about moving filing cabinets, cupboards and planters between desks to increase the space between the users. You could take this a step further and incorporate higher space division into the office by using lockers or partitions.
• Consider moving your pedestals to the centre of the desks between two users, so they are physically unable to come together side by side. If you have mobile pedestals, try moving them out so they sit between the users (almost like creating an L-shaped desk), increasing the space between the users. Ideally move the pedestals to the ‘middle desk’ positions, reducing occupation in this example from 6 to 4.
These popular spaces for people to meet and relax may have to be closed off completely, but if that is not a possibility, measures should be put in place. A great way to decrease density is by staggering employees lunch breaks in cafes and having a ‘one at a time’ policy for tea points.
Individual lounge seating should ideally be separated or screened off from each other. Consider replacing the two or three-seaters sofa with separate chairs. Consider having existing lounge furniture reupholstered; there are multiple performance fabrics and vinyl’s – all are anti-microbial, bleach cleanable & waterproof.
Right now it’s unlikely that we will be welcoming many visitors into our workplaces, so we will continue spending a lot more time undergoing virtual meetings with our clients & suppliers rather than being seated around a meeting table, face-to-face.
With that in mind, we recommend narrowing down meeting room furniture in order to safely accommodate smaller meeting groups with greater distancing measures. Remove alternate meeting chairs to make sure there is a 2-meter space in every direction between chair positions.
Modular meeting tables provide additional flexibility, and can be linked to form larger tables at a later date. And why not consider ‘stand-up meetings’ in the open areas of your office – they are healthier and will ensure meetings don’t overrun!
As stated by McKinsey & Global Institute:
“Leading corporations will boldly question long-held assumptions about how work should be done and the role of the office. There is no one-size-fits-all solution”.
At Interion, we are keenly aware that there is much talk, but few practical design examples, regarding the longer-term future of offices. So next month we are planning to introduce our own future office concept, which will address the inevitable changes to come, providing a safe and secure environment for business to thrive in the case of repeat pandemics. Look out for our next article ‘The Office of the Future’!
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