Much like how the COVID-19 pandemic has forced millions of workers around to globe to make the sudden shift to working remotely, corporation are now force to rethink office design, with appropriate health and safety regulations in place to maintain the health of both employees and the organization as employees transition back into workplace. For some organizations, the prospect of having to splurge on costly remodels can be source of concern.
A more economical alternative to engaging in pricey remodelling work that permanently restructures the existing office space would be to reconfigure existing spaces. The tactical use of office design solutions can aid in transforming the office into a safe working environment so that employees can return to work a peace of mind.
For larger organizations that have implemented a phased return to work to help curb the spread of the virus, the largely uninhabited office space can be carefully spaced out such that the 1.5 metre social distancing regulations is enforced among employees present in the office. Based on the existing office layout, organizations can map out a number of reconfiguration scenarios and identify the most effective seating plan for employees. This solution can be applied without making major alterations to the existing layout of desk and furniture. Instead, employees will be allocated specific workstations to maintain a safe distance from one another. The same applies for companies that previously endorsed a flexible workplace plan with resizable furniture to be moved and adjusted and employees scattered across the open office space - this concept is no longer feasible given the current COVID-19 climate. In its place is the return of small, enclosed offices and/ or cubicles.
Areas such as the meeting room, privacy area or even lounge area can be transformed into dedicated seating areas for employees. This serve to constraint the spread of virus across an open area. Since there is a limit to the number of enclosed rooms available to accommodate every employee, individual workspaces should be designed so they are separated. The focus is to recreate a distributed office plan, with the previously movable furniture fixed into position to produce a static cubicle-like working space that abides by social distancing guidelines. Do consider installing protective shields for individual workstations located within close proximities, as has been done at supermarkets and other retail outlets.
There are also organizations that choose to utilise large bench desks over individual workstations to encourage greater collaboration between co-workers. In such cases, office designers have recommended that companies seat a maximum of three people to a desk. Team meetings that require full employee participation can be divided into virtual and physical components. Taking into account social distancing guidelines, a maximum of five individuals can convene in a conference room to conduct the meeting. The remaining staff can participate via video conference, either from their personal workstation or from home.
If there is absolute need to bring external clients into the office for meetings, they should be directed to a more secluded part of the office with low human traffic to minimise interaction with other employees. It is particularly important to designate and communication the use of such isolated spaces. This is because apart from hosting outside clients, there needs to also be a clearly defined isolation area where employees who display symptoms of the virus can be isolated immediately to minimise their exposure to the public. This is to prevent them from wondering around the office vicinity in search of a suitable area to self-isolate. In this situation, the consequences of directing the client to an isolation room for sick employees instead of the intended meeting room can be dire.
An isolation space for possible carriers of the virus should be designed as an enclosed space with increased ventilation or reduced air pressure to prevent others in the area from being exposed to the virus. With a fixed isolation room, their footprint from the time they started to exhibit signs of the illness to when they began isolating can also be easily tracked to deduce where they have been and who they were in contact.
As company begin to phase in more workers, the office space will be again enhanced to promote collaboration in a safe manner. It may thus be wiser to reconfigure existing spaces rather than investing in permanent remodels. All suggested COVID-19 modifications can be remodified once the pandemic has been given the all-clear, reducing costs for organizations and offering a pragmatic design solution.