Despite the surge in telecommuting among companies worldwide during the Covid-19 crisis, demand for office space is protected to gradually return after the pandemic has been contained and employees begin returning to work. The pandemic might even lead to expansion in office space, as companies will need to maintain safe distancing between employees in the post-COVID era.
In view of this, companies may need to rethink office design in line with government guidelines on physical distancing.
Why we still need offices
Whilst much has been said about the benefits of working from home during the pandemic, the lockdowns has also highlighted the problems of adopting this as a permanent arrangement.
Working from home meant there was a lack of opportunity for employees to come together physically as a team to brainstorm, collaborate and innovate. The absence of a functional office could thus impact the quality of their work output.
The office is also where companies forge their brand and identity and strengthen the corporate culture. Without a strong physical presence, companies could find it more difficult to engage with clients in formal discussions, and to attract and retain talents.
For employees, working from home may have implications for work-life balance. Without a clearly-defined space to mark the boundaries of work, remote staff may feel compelled to respond to business matters beyond working hours.
They may also find it challenging to remain focused amidst the distractions at home. In the physical workplace, there are spaces designed for different purposes such as the meeting room for team brainstorming sessions or the lounge room where staff go to take a break from work. When employees work from home, the lines are often blurred as these spaces are usually not clearly designated.
The other issue related to working from home is social isolation. The office provides employees with a conductive environment for them to engage in face-to-face interactions with co-workers. This addresses the social dimension of work which keeps employees engaged and vested in the company.
How much office space will companies need?
Given these effects of remote work, it is unlikely that companies will totally abandon offices and have their employees work from home. However, the offices may have to be reconfigured and redesigned to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Safe distancing protocols, such as the need for individuals to be spaced 1.5 metre apart, are expected to be in place for quite some time, possibly until 2022.
This means every floor plan has to be carefully evaluated to address social distancing and safety concerns. Office need to be de-densified and organizations can no longer pack as many people into a single physical space. This could lead to an increase in demand for more private spaces or personal offices for staff, and greater distances between individual workstations.
For the same reason, many small businesses and start-ups who previously favoured the co-worknig model are also starting to secure their own spaces rather than be with other businesses in an open-plan environment. This has led experts to predict the rise in demand for small-scale office suites among smaller organisation.
What will the new office space look like?
In term of office layout, the current health crisis could lead to a reversal of the open workplace plan and the trend towards hot desking. Instead of getting employees to work at any available station, companies may once again designate fixed workspace for each employee.
Desk setups which previously saw employees positioned facing each other or right next to one another may no longer be feasible. In its place would be the return of private cubicle marked by barriers between desks to minimise the risk of transmission. Individual workstations will also be strategically located to give more distance between desks.
Shared areas such as the conference room and pantry will have to be enlarged or have fewer seats to maintain safe distancing.
Employees can also expect to see more technological advancements such as the use of sensors to reduce the need for physical contact with surfaces. For example, high-touch surfaces such as door handles and light switches could make way for automated doors and motion-sensor lights while voice technology could instruct the elevator which level to go to.
Hand sanitiser stations will also become a ubiquitous part of the office. They will be located at convenient areas throughout the office to safeguard employees wellbeing and maintain a healthy work environment.
Where do companies go from here?
As organization organize a phased return to work, they will need to seize this opportunity to plan ahead. Covid-19 will inevitably re-shape the way work spaces are designed and utilised. Offices with more private areas to limit the spread of the virus are expected to increase in popularity, while the demand for open and flexible activity-based spaces will decline. Ultimately, companies will have to decide what kind of space they will want post-pandemic, and find ways to create an environment that is conductive to work, aesthetically-pleasing and safe.