This quarantine period has produced several interesting viewpoints on how the office will look post-COVID-19. These articles must however be viewed through the lenses of whoever wrote it and what their intentions are: one article alone does not present a universal approach to designing the future office. Designers must not overreact by suggesting costlier measures and rushing out to test their post-COVID predictions. Given that all clients are different, applying common sense (supported by research) and engaging the client is still the best approach to designing the office space of the future. Below are some thoughts that came to me while working on a few office design projects during the work-from-home period.
Working from Home as a Strategy, Not as the Norm
There is a reason why physical distance exists between your home and your workplace. At the end of each workday, this distance allows you to physically and mentally disconnect from the workplace in order to spend quality time with your family. Once you bring your work home, the home becomes an unhealthy place, to be utilised in a way it was not designed for. When the pandemic occurred, we were “forced” to adapt and adjust to working from our homes in order to move projects forward while preventing the spread of the pandemic. Long before COVID-19, we had already applied work-from-home strategies to help retain talented employees who were struggling with balancing work and domestic responsibilities. Sales teams were more productive spending time outside with clients while making regular check-ins to the office to touch base with the rest of the team. Our experience during this quarantine period proved once more that working from home is a viable strategy to help management temporarily address the widespread effect of a pandemic, and to determine what part of the organization would really benefit from flexible work schedules.
Adopt Only What is Needed
There are so many predictions and suggestions on how to design the post-COVID-19 office, from providing bigger, more enclosed desks and 2-meter wide walkways, to adopting technology that enable a totally contactless office. While a large portion of these studies are factually correct, I suggest to adopt only what is needed and where it is needed. An enclosed office is a thing of the past and was made obsolete by technology and the behaviour of new generation of workers. Wider walkways would mean more space; and improved technology is a huge investment of finances and education. A practical approach would be to maintain the standard 1.2-meter-wide walkway. If I see someone coming towards me, I would step aside and let him pass through to avoid contact. I would also invest in longer desks to maintain distance between co-workers, but apply contactless technology only to meeting rooms that are highly utilised by both internal and external users. The next few months will be challenging for all businesses as they try to make up for losses incurred during the previous months, meaning that not everyone will be in a financial position to immediately make such drastic changes.
The Office is not Dead (Not Yet)
The work-from-home strategy that we are adapting to during this period will definitely affect the size of the future office for many organizations, but will not necessarily make the office irrelevant. Every crisis gives rise to opportunities, and I personally that medical professionals are racing against each other to develop a vaccine. Property developers will construct new buildings and make improvements to the Indoor Air Quality of existing ones to make the office safe. A large number of Multi-National clients I have worked with still believe that a regional office with a substantial size underlines their commitment to clients and is crucial in maintaining a strong presence within a particular region.
Like most projects, designing the new office (amid or post-Covid-19P is a collaboration between the client and the office designer. The data gathered during the work-from-home period should help companies identify which departments of the company can really benefit from a flexible work schedule, to help determine the office size for those who must remain and physically work in the office. The office designer should then develop an office plan that is adaptable and gives the client the flexibility to de-densify or densify the office when needed, with the purpose of either addressing a pandemic or making a room for optimistic to grow staff headcount.
The drawings below are designs for a client we are working with. It has a modest budget and applies the concepts stated above. The office layout helps the client plan the staggered work schedule and seating arrangement of staff with the assurance of a safe return to the office, by providing empty pockets for safe distancing. At the same time, we are optimistic about business growth and a return to some degree of "normal", so we proposed that these empty pockets can be converted to workstations in the future.
Above: This layout helps the client plan the seating and attendance of staff in the office amid COVID 19 with the provision of empty pockets for safe distancing, which can later be converted to workstations.
Above: An Office project with a modest budget can still be designed to counter the spread of a pandemic through common sense space planning and using familiar furnishing as protective elements, along with social distancing measures. This also provides clients with flexibility to plan for possible future expansion.