The pandemic has forced organizations to re-examine the role of office as a safe, productive and pleasant environment for employees to thrive. In view of this, businesses not only need to rethink office design to be in line with government guidelines on physical distancing, but also address the challenges of safe collaboration through smart workplace planning.
The role of physical workspaces in promoting collaboration
While technological advancements have enabled employees around the world to perform some of their requisite responsibilities from home, their capacity to collaborate and communicate effectively within a team is limited compared to being in a physical office space.
An office provides workers with a common space to work alongside each other and helps foster a sense of corporate identity and belonging. Employees are able to better motivate one another and explore their creativity and skills as a team compared to working remotely. They can brainstorm and bounce ideas off each other more effectively with the assurance that all team members are engaged in the discussions.
This is also important as businesses seek to be more agile and to respond faster to changes in the market environment. Working together in the same physical location allows plans to be conceptualised, fine-tuned and executed quickly, with team members in sync with each other's progress working towards a common goal.
The absence of a functional workplace could thus hinder the collective ability to brainstorm, collaborate and innovate.
Maintaining safe workplace collaboration in the COVID-19 era
Despite the growth in remote working, most businesses will still need physical workspaces designed to enhance teamwork and agility; catalyse creativity and innovation; as well as strengthen corporate identity.
However, strict social distancing measures may present a conundrum for organization looking to phase in more employees into the office.
In response, organizations could create workspaces specifically designed to support team meetings and group interactions which cannot take place remotely. The primary focus of the office would be to provide a collaborative environment for teamwork while employees carry out individual tasks from home.
The post- pandemic workplace will be designed with the idea that a proportion of the workforce will continue working from home. Instead of individual desks and private offices, the workplace will be reconfigured to provide staff with a safe and conductive environment to hold meeting and promote effective communication, which is not easily achieved from home.
Key design principles for a safe collaborative environment
There are several ways organizations can create a safe and collaborative office where employees can work productively.
Businesses can start by reconfiguring their office layout to implement zooming and clusters within the workplace that will reduce staff movement. This involves separating the overall workspace into collaborative zones based on its overall density. In line with official social distancing guidelines, each cluster zone is also designed to ensure that an individual is entitled to 4 square metres of space in the office. This helps designers to determine the maximum number of people allowed within a designated space.
These zones can be further reconfigured to serve a multifunctional purpose. Within a zone, employees can hold small group discussions, team meetings and also take break without having to traverse from one end of the office to another just to utilise the pantry, meeting room and other shared amenities.
To do this, each zone has be conceptualized as an open-plan office with clusters of areas to work and rest. It will ideally be designed with features such as flexible walls that can be used to open or close off individual clusters as well as to create more or less room depending on the number of employees present. Alternatively, the space could be designed with socially-distanced seating separated by unobtrusive partitions that are low enough not impede interaction, but will help to deter co-mingling. These partition could also serve functional purposes such as storage.
The use of well-integrated technology devices such as screen and projectors can also easily adapted to different uses including video conferencing. Each zone will likewise be furnished with chairs, long tables, sofas and café tables. This design plan takes into account the need for safe physical distancing between individuals without hindering their ability to collaborate as a team.
Emphasising organizational priorities
Due to social distancing measures, organizations have had to rethink the use of the office space to ensure employee wellbeing and safeguard business continuity. Businesses need to prioritise the types of interactions that cannot happen remotely and address these challenges.
This will involve re-evaluating work processes to determine what can be carried out by individuals remotely, and what has to be undertaken as a team within a shared but socially distanced workplace.
Organizations could categorise business projects according to collaborative and non-collaborative work. Projects that require ideation and evaluation often entail teamwork, which will be conducted from the office while operational tasks can be done remotely. Based on this framework, businesses will be better able to design their workspace to be Covid-proof.