In Part 1 of our series on office design, we ask suppliers how they think COVID-19 will affect the workplace. Will it mean the end of open plan? Will it mean the end of the office? Or will the changes be more subtle?
As businesses prepare to welcome workers back into the office or, more likely, delay their return, many will be conducting health and safety assessments and working with stakeholders to create a COVIDsecure workplace. The prospect of enforcing social distancing in offices might be daunting and against the grain for spaces that are designed to bring people together and which in recent years have been engineered to encourage movement, circulation, collaboration and spontaneous encounters.
Yet, this very flexibility – combined with the inevitability of phased returns due to concerns about the safety and capacity of public transport, uncertainty over childcare/schooling and a more relaxed attitude to home working and flexi-time – will help businesses adapt to the new requirements and could produce long-lasting change.
Businesses will have to implement stricter cleaning regimes and will probably want to provide face masks, gloves and hand sanitisers. They may want to put up perspex sneeze-screens or implement a one-way system around the office. In some cases, it may be necessary to widen corridors or reconfigure furniture to maintain social distancing and stop people sitting face to face.
But, as bdg architecture + design CEO Gill Parker explains, these short term measures will only work if they are combined with home working to reduce the number of people in offices.
“The solution isn’t to significantly redesign office space – the solution is to recognise that home working and office working both have a place in the workplace mix. We are working with our clients to develop their Return to Work plans in the short term (home working), mid-term (offices reopen with reduced occupancy) and long-term (post-Covid, when homeworking will be a greater part of the mix than it was pre-Covid). If organisations focus only on getting everyone back into the office then we are facing a bleak future of a return to fixed desking and shift working, which is not suited to a positive and collaborative culture that we have all spent so much time cultivating.”
Evidence suggests businesses are open to this argument, especially in the London, where half of workers rely on public transport to get to jobs that could be done just as well from home. In a survey of 1,550 lockdown workers by cybersecurity software company SentryBay, 63% said they wanted to spend at least some of their working week at home in the future; 23% said they wanted to work full time at home once the pandemic was over.
For Parker, the ease with which people and organisations have adapted to mass home working is one of the big gains of the last two months.
“The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the untapped potential of ‘remote working’ and in a single moment accelerated its large-scale adoption. With mass recognition that infrastructure, technology platforms and people can all be trusted to work effectively and remain productive in isolation, organisations are now free to empower their staff to choose to work in the setting that best suits them, including the home. In a sector that continually feels the need to debate along polar lines (e.g. open plan vs. cellular) organisations should not feel the need to choose between home or office; this is not the ‘death of the office’ as many are predicting.”
She adds that this is just something that employers and employees will have to get used to and accept.
“We have to approach the change to our workplace experience in the same way we approach an upgrade to our smartphones. Millions of people will do it, at the same time, all over the world. Most people will not be entirely sure why they need it or 100% sure of what it involves, but they will do it anyway, with the expectation that at the very least they gain an upgraded end product with added features and improved performance.”
Dr Greg Lavery, Director of Rype Office, a manufacturer and supplier of remanufactured office furniture, is another who predicts long-term changes to the way offices are organised, beyond short-term social distancing tactics such as staggered starts and morning and afternoon shifts.
“When COVID came along a couple of months ago, the world was well positioned to adopt agile working and home working, because all the IT and communications technologies needed were in place. COVID has shown that people can work at home and, what’s more, that they like working at home. The question for employers is how many people are going to want to come back to the office and how many people do they want to have in the office, if they can be perfectly productive at home.
“Imagine if you can say to staff ‘We are happy for you to work 2 or 3 days a week at home’. If you happen to live in Reading or Swindon that is a good option, and that will attract new employees. Home working will become part of the employment package,” he said.
Lavery added: “One client told me they can imagine offices becoming like private clubs where you come in to meet and to mingle, to collaborate, to train, to learn, but if you have a day to write a paper you do that at home.
“You can imagine a world where organisations adopt a hub and spoke model – a private members club-type office in central London and a series of satellite offices on the perimeter that staff who live outside London can pop into for 15 minutes to do their photocopying, collect their mail and engage and interact with colleagues. The satellite office might only have 20 desks and a really good coffee machine and some sofas and a pool table, but it might save people from having to trek into central London every day.
“Imagine how that changes the whole fabric of working in London. It means fewer people in the middle; real estate prices go down; you may get rejuvenation of the High Street where those offices are set up; little villages re-emerging.”
Such trends have been talked about for 20 or 30 years, and while there have been developments, both in the design of offices and the variety of workspaces available (e.g. shared office space), people still spend huge amounts of time and money commuting into offices in the centre of town. Will things really be different this time?
Desire for change
For Ian Weddell, UK CEO of Swiss manufacturer USM, it all depends on how long the crisis lasts.
“COVID-19 can only be eradicated through herd immunity or immunisation, and it will take 18 months to get proper immunisation internationally. Until then, the only way to keep the virus down is to drastically change the nature of social interactions, so there could be a massive change in our business lives for the next two years. If that is the case, there will be a sea-change in the way things develop. If it soon blows over and we all go back to work and back to watching rugby and football and drinking in bars, it will be forgotten. But I don’t think that will be the case,” he said.
“Personally, I think there will be a big change in office requirements going forward. Just today Barclays was saying they might need to make a long-term adjustment to their whole location strategy. Do they need 7,000 people in Canary Wharf? Or would it be better to get their teams out into branches operating as local business hubs? The bigger companies will certainly be looking to change,” he said.
Weddell believes that this will have consequences for the type of furniture organisations select, putting a premium on modularity, flexibility and durability – all hallmarks of the Haller table system that USM has been making since 1965.
“We don’t know what each business needs, but given that the product is flexible and adaptable, there’s a variety of things we can do. For example, we supply a lot of reception desks and we have created a metal attachment that lets you mount a perspex screen. Or, where tables are configured in a bench, instead of placing a bag saying ‘Do Not Sit Here’ over every other desk, we could reconfigure the product and put storage between side-by-side desks to give people their 2 metres distance.
“People will need flexible, adaptable solutions for their office requirements, because no one is quite sure what will be required in the next few years. Our product, because of its durability and modularity, is well placed to support people in that way,” he said.
Common sense approach
Jonathan Hindle, Group Managing Director – EMEA, KI, is more sanguine than most about the challenges involved in making a workplace COVID-secure, questioning the need for wholesale changes to office environments, especially those that have been designed with agility in mind.
“There is a bandwagon of people saying ‘Let’s put loads of sneeze-screens everywhere’, as though that could solve the problem. At the end of the day, a lot of the disciplines involved in trying to implement more agile, flexible working lend themselves to lower volumes of people coming into the office. A company like PWC already has clusters of different working environments all spaced out one from the other. If you just reduce the throughput of people, you will be able to work safely in line with the new guidelines pretty easily,” he said.
The same goes for the furniture products organisations might want to deploy. “If we are going to see more agile and flexible and remote working, you are going to have to have less assigned spaces and therefore you are going to need more lockers and you will have a lot of things that were assimilated for flexible working and agile working that are going to be as relevant now that you have less people coming into the office and rotations.”
Hindle adds that many businesses will be reluctant to make significant changes for something that might be over within a year.
“We ourselves will experiment by putting up a few plexi screens here and there, maybe freestanding ones that are a bit more flexible, and we will be encouraging people to make use of what is already there in the way of boardrooms and meeting rooms, just limiting the number of people in them. We are not convinced that businesses are going to be doing much redesigning beyond that, because I think they see this as more of a short to medium-term issue, not a long-term one.”
That said, Hindle adds that KI is happy to work with specifiers and customers to address specific needs they might have in relation to COVID-19.
“People have got used to modifying standard platform products. We take that right the way round to provide a co-creation process for specifiers, which we call Infinity by KI. We have put a lot of investment and back-up into this process, in terms of design and engineering capabilities but also manufacturing flexibility, so that we are able to respond quickly to customer requests with rapid prototyping and very cost-effective manufacturing. Not every time someone comes up with ‘new sliced bread’ is it ‘new sliced bread’; they might just have a spin on it. But sometimes it can be an entirely new and novel ground-up design. What we offer is an engineering and enabling capability that can make it a reality,” he said.
“Right from the get-go KI was very entrepreneurial, developing systems with people like Sun Microsystems and Microsoft that were exactly what they wanted and which they would call their own. We still do that, with Facebook and a lot of other very big clients. We offer them engineering support – like an Arup to a Foster.”
Ultimately, Hindle believes that a common sense approach will prevail in relation to social distancing that might remove the need for structural changes, to corridors for instance.
“The two-metre rule was part of the Government’s desire early on to make a clear message stick. But the first wording they used was ‘2 metres wherever possible’. It was always in the back of their minds that this wasn’t always going to be possible and that it wasn’t a panacea for safety. They are now looking at relaxing that; it is just a question of how they relax it and whether they put in a caveat saying you can do it, but only if you have done this, this and this, like wear a mask,” he said.
“Obviously, you want to encourage visitors still and you want people to feel safe coming to you, so you put in handwashing stations and all those kinds of things and a recommended route through the office. The rest will be dealt with, frankly, by just reducing the number of people in at any time, so it is possible for people to pass without being cheek by jowl.”