Pandemics won’t go away...
Businesses can’t afford to be complacent; the November 2020 outbreaks of a Sars-CoV2 virus in Denmark and the highly pathogenic H5N8 Avian flu in North Yorkshire may be considered warnings. In a populous, globalised world, it will become increasingly difficult to contain future viruses or variants to a particular region or Country.
Indeed, history suggests that threats have been occurring more frequently, and despite the recent advances in mRNA vaccine technology, vaccines will still take a long time to develop and trial.
Look at the sobering ‘20th Century’ list below and note the increasing frequency of virus threats:
1889 - Russian Flu
1918 - Spanish Flu
1957 - Asian Flu
1968 - Hong Kong Flu
2002 - SARS
2009 - Swine Flu
2014 - Ebola
2015 - MERS
2019 - COVID-19
For a business organisation to thrive and grow, human co-operation and specialisation is required. This leads to the development of new ideas, services and products, which drive profit and success.
Indeed, as humans we need social interaction. This is well-understood by Sociologists and Psychologists – and is well-expressed by Roxane Gervais, writing in The Psychologist magazine August 2020:
“...the need to connect – not with AI, but with each other – is a core component of being human and wanting to experience humanity. ‘Work’ in itself, provides a purpose for an individual. But this purpose reduces in value if it cannot be shared and undertaken with others. A more flexible working style has not reduced the need for a connectivity that comes from having supportive colleagues to interact with on a daily basis. Occupational psychologists continue to promote the necessity of face-to-face communication, and the undeniable benefits that collaborating with colleagues on projects and tasks bring to the workplace.”
There can be little doubt that home-working will become a bigger component of the work experience – indeed, in a poll of 133 City firms conducted by CBI/PwC, 88% agreed there will be a shift towards homeworking as a direct result of COVID-19, and nearly half said that 90% of their people could do their job without being in the office.
Conversely, figures released in October by the Office for National Statistics indicated that 67% of over 24,000 survey respondents said they do not intend to keep homeworking as a permanent business model in the future. The ONS also reported a 2% increase of people commuting to work from 30 September to 4 October, despite Boris Johnson’s orders on 22 September to ‘work from home for at least 6 months’. A November YouGov/The Times poll found that only 18% of respondents said they would choose to work from home every day.
We think it’s reasonable to conclude that although homeworking will become a bigger component of the work experience, the ‘place of work’ will remain.
As a small, intimate team we already knew each other very well. We had already formed the bonds and understanding that enable us to work effectively as a team, utilising each other’s knowledge and talents to deliver great results for our clients. And like so many others, we have been working substantially ‘at home’ since mid-March, communicating regularly by videoconferencing.
It was all working pretty well – in fact, much better than expected. We didn’t miss a beat in terms of what we do best – delivering great results for our clients. But we were not developing; we were essentially in a ‘maintenance regime’.
It took us getting together face-to-face to realise that real growth and development – the foundation of our future success and security – only comes from those very human characteristics of discussion, debate and non-verbal communication, which are so constrained in a structured videoconference.
This ‘PRO’ concept is just one direct result of our get-together; and a great example of progress through co-operation.
So what does this mean for me?
Much will depend on your business, your lease commitments and your existing office layouts, but one thing is clear; you need ‘a place’ of work.
...and your questions may be something like this:
- How can I encourage people to return?
- How can I create a safe and productive working environment for myself and my people?
- Can I create a pandemic-proof office to minimise future disruption?
- Do I need less space?
- How can I reduce my lease commitments?
...and if you’re a landlord with long-term institutional commitments:
- How can I keep my office space fully tenanted?
We’re trying to answer all of these questions, provoking debate by showing you what the future office may look like.
Rationale and reasoning for the pandemic-proof office
We started by considering what the future office should NOT look like.
We think most would agree that deep ‘open plan’ spaces encourage unplanned movement in all directions, making it difficult to avoid crossing paths with others. A large occupier population also means that you are sharing space with people you don’t know personally, and therefore can’t trust.
At a workplace/desk level, the typical ‘banks’ of 6-10 desks typically mean sitting opposite or adjacent to someone closer than the recommended 2 meters.
None of these factors is likely to encourage a return to the office!
Our first assumptions were that people would be more likely to come to the office if:
- They worked consistently in a defined area populated by others they know and trust
- They could get to that place of work without the risk of mixing with others they may not know
- They had the required work support facilities close-at-hand, rather than in a shared, centralised location.
This led us to consider parallels with the real geographical world, where most people live in Villages, Towns or Districts, with which are they both familiar and comfortable. These ‘local areas’ provide community coherence and the ‘facilities’ required for living, from the village shop to the supermarket, from the hardware store to the garage.
So we wanted to explore the idea of individual ‘Villages’ in the workplace. Each of these would be populated by a consistent working group who know each other by name, sharing values and duties for the benefit of each other.
The next question was ‘How big should these villages be?’
The disciplines of Anthropology, Sociology and Psychology have contributed much to our understanding of the ‘natural order’ of human societies and individuals. In evolutionary terms, we are not far from the Pleistocenes!
One of the best-known and most referenced pieces of group size research was undertaken by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who developed what has come to be known as ‘Dunbar’s number’; a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. In simple terms, the ‘biggest’ number is around 150, but that includes friends, family and other social groups in addition to work colleagues.
Of more interest to us is Dunbar’s natural ‘small social group’ or ‘band’, whose natural order is 30-50 strong. While there are no absolute rules, we can look to more examples of natural groups in contemporary society. Why do schools form classrooms of 30-35 pupils? Why is the platoon size in most western armies typically 30-50 strong?
Essentially, the answer is that the humans have a natural cognitive ability to know, understand, trust and work co-operatively within groups of 30-50.
This is not a dissertation in one of the ‘ologies’ so for our purposes it’s reasonable to assume that our ‘Villages’ will accommodate up to 50 people – but rarely at one time, due to increased homeworking and flexible office hours.
However, in a pandemic the idea of sharing a ‘hot desk’ is anathema to many, so we must provide a ‘base’ for each person we can expect to be in our office village on a given day. We suggest that number is around 30-40.
Structure and separation
Now we must turn our attention to the inferences we can draw from the discussion above:
- Our ‘Villages’ must be discrete, separated from each other in some way
- The circulation route approaching each village should ideally be based on a one-way system to avoid direct contact with ‘outsiders’
- Preferably, to prepare for the worst-case scenario of more pandemics, the circulation routes within each village should be able to be ‘one-way’, to avoid any physical contact as far as is practicable.
This implies that we will need to introduce some element of structure to our office layouts – perhaps a better word is ‘order’. So our village-based layout may look something like this:
At this point, it is worth digressing to discuss the implications. We are attempting to offer a logical ‘model’ to be used as a template by professional designers. While a simple application may appear to risk the creation of boring, repetitive working environments (not far removed from the ‘Sea of Cubicles’ of the 1980’s) we need to remember that designers have an armoury of creative techniques to create local visual interest and relief.
Every business (and team within) will have a range of specific requirements that need to be satisfied, and the involvement of professional designers will be critical for a successful outcome.
Few would argue that we are already moving away from the bland, high-density open-plan office towards ‘agile’, activity-based work settings. In many ways our PRO model represents an acceleration of these developments towards a more structured, separated environment.
Development of village concept
Today’s office workers need a range of support facilities to communicate, concentrate and create, which may include formal/informal meeting areas, printers and reference documents – and of course a ‘work base’ to sit and think/develop between activities. They also need the basics – drinks, food, storage for personal effects – and toilets (We’ll come to those later).
It’s natural to assume that we bring these facilities to each village, rather than place them all centrally with all the complications of cleansing between uses and potential cross-infection. This may mean that some facilities are duplicated, taking up more valuable space than otherwise required, but the trade-off is that we are assuming a smaller ‘regular’ office population, providing circa 30 work-bases for circa 50 people.
Our thinking is that these facilities can be used as ‘barrier zones’ to physically separate one village from another, so naturally they would be around the perimeter of each village, helping us in turn to create one-way circulation routes.
‘Macro’ to ‘Micro’
Now we can delve into the detail and begin to see how our villages shape up:
The ‘Facilities zones’ will be the most variable, according to the nature of its residents’ business and work patterns. In our simple example, we assume the use of relocatable partitions to define each particular facility. Such partitions may be full- or partial height, according to the degree of confidentiality required and the limitations of an installed air-conditioning system.
For maximum flexibility, we suggest that facility support areas are arranged in alternate ‘square wave’ fashion so that one opens to village A, the next to village B and so on. This achieves two things; a) an even distribution of facilities within each village and b) the ability to efficiently reconfigure the balance of facilities should one village have a higher demand than another.
Should the demand for facilities be particularly high, we have the option to ‘double-up’ the depth of the facilities zone to provide more facilities on each side. In practice, these facilities zones can include a wide range of variations, as illustrated later.
The model of face-to-face desk clusters has no place in our PRO environment.
In normal times, such clusters are cheap and space-efficient, but it would be impossible to achieve a ‘head-distance’ of 2 meters when two people sit side-by-side at desks which are typically 1.4M – 1.6M wide.
Yet the ‘desk’ remains the best ergonomic solution to support the PC Screen or Laptop together with papers, notebooks and the other daily accoutrements of work. Better still, each ‘desk’ would offer its user a degree of personal control – for example the ability to work sitting or standing (The arguments for personal health and productivity are well-made elsewhere).
In our model, we assume that a particular ‘desk’ will be used by one person on one day, and by another (after clean-down) the next, so the ability to quickly adjust the height to find a comfortable working position becomes even more important.
We began to look for a pattern that could provide well-separated, screened and adjustable individual ‘Work-bases’ – in a relatively space-efficient manner.
And for us, the solution was to apply the same ‘square wave’ alternating pattern we used in our facilities zones, setting our ‘desks’ in ‘lines’ rather than ‘clusters’. This relatively space-efficient approach ensures that individual Work-base occupiers are fully screened; their nearest Work base neighbour is around 2 meters away, facing in the opposite direction.
Avoiding personal exposure...
Layout designers are taught to avoid situations where occupiers are exposed with their back to the main corridor; this can create a feeling of exposure and insecurity, which is not ideal, even within a village of trusted people.
Such a position may be fine for 30-60 minutes ‘between meetings’, but more likely we would replace certain desks with support tools such as printers, photocopiers and layout/collation tables. Other options include sanitisation stations, lockers for personal storage, perhaps even telephone booths.
Indicative space utilisation measurements
Based on these examples, our average space consumed per Work base, including all facilities and circulation, is 95 Sq. ft. (That’s less than 60 sq.ft. per employee if our villages are the home for circa 50 people.)
This compares to current ‘norms’ of around 100 sq.ft. per desk position in major UK Cities, and 130-150 sq.ft. per desk position in out-of-town locations.
|Total net useable floor area:||36,100 sq. ft.|
|Divide by 382 for overall space per work base:||95 sq. ft.|
|Primary Circulation:||10,625 sq. ft. (30%)|
|Villages, including facilities and secondary circulation:||25,475 sq. ft.|
|Divide by 382 for net space per work base:||67 sq. ft.|
|Net space per employee assuming 50 per village:||40 sq. ft.|
These figures demonstrate the potential for PRO to be space-efficient in direct comparison to typical current open-plan environments.
Some further thoughts for Landlords
The office population will fall, but based on our indicative space measurements, should our PRO model be applied, the amount of space required will be similar.
In tenants’ minds, quality of space will become more important, as will flexibility to upscale/downscale in uncertain times.
Our model provides huge potential for floors to be multi-tenanted by different businesses (subject to data security, non-compete etc.) – which may give rise to more creative approaches to leases and lease terms.
Only landlords and developers have the means to address some of the issue we cannot. For example, the creation of ‘distributed’ rather than ‘centralised’ WC’s; adding or adapting lifts and staircases to be either ‘up’ or ‘down’.
There is great scope for the forward-thinking Landlord to leverage their assets and maintain occupancy levels.
Some further thoughts for occupiers
Our PRO model presents opportunities for tenants, many of whom will choose to reduce their overall space requirements (None of us really knows what the ratio of work-bases to people will be, given the emerging changes to work patterns).
Let’s take the examples of Companies ‘A’ and ‘B’. They do different things so do not compete, and both have secure data policies. Both want to take stock, and in the meantime to reduce their space and lease outgoings by 50%
But Company A has a lease break opportunity in 5 years, and Company B has a lease break in just 6 months. Both have problems – Company A is stuck with the same outgoings for 5 years, and Company B really doesn’t know how much space they will need, given all the present uncertainties.
Our PRO model offers the opportunity for disparate Companies to safely share a demise, while retaining control of their own individual work environments. In this example, Company B becomes a sub-tenant of Company A, and both halve their outgoings with almost immediate effect. In 5 years or so, both can take a view on the space they need.
The reason that our model works is that it does not compromise Building regulations (means of escape etc) or Systems (e.g. Air-conditioning). Many demises that could otherwise not be separated can be shared using PRO.
A full implementation of PRO won’t be for everyone, but certain principles are broadly applicable to most future layout adaptations:
- A more ‘structured’ approach to define potentially one-way circulation routes
- A move towards individual ‘group trust territories’
- Distributed, rather than centralised, facility support areas
- Move away from ‘facing desk’ clusters to more separated ‘Work-bases’
We have developed this approach with trusted partners, including experts in design, 3D modelling and construction. These resources are available from Interion as a ‘one stop shop’ to design and deliver your future workplace.