You might remember The Jetsons, the Hanna-Barbera animated series, ran on Cartoon Network. What especially makes it memorable is its opening theme featuring the family flying in a spacecraft, jettisoning to their daily activities. When the main character, George Jetson, arrives at his work, his spacecraft closes up into a briefcase, and then he takes a conveyer into his office, right to his desk. Throughout the show, several robots and smart appliances assist him, pouring his coffee, taking his coat — he even does video conferencing with his boss.
Fast forward to 2020; video conferencing is a new normal today. Remote working is critical, and collaboration tools are a must have for a productive environment. Mass quarantines and complete lock-downs, the epidemic has re-ignited and amplified the debate over the future of work. While corporate giants like Twitter, Facebook, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) have announced permanent work from home for their employees, does that mean the beginning of the end of the traditional office typology?
The short answer – No!
The virus definitely won’t kill the concept of working in standard office buildings. However, the new normal will have businesses coming back with an open mind of alternative spaces for working and designed with the purview of a healthy environment.
As companies plan how to bring their workforce together again in the office, numerous calculations are being made to provide an environment that will keep workers safe, healthy, and productive. While some of that strategy involves testing and monitoring employees to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, architects are thinking about the actual physical design of offices.
Automation & Voice Technology
Technology has been the table stake to respond to the ongoing pandemic and uncertainty. Redesigning the post-COVID-19 workplaces would companies to invest in a new suite of contactless technologies to reduce disease transmission.
Take some inspiration from Zaha Hadid Architects’ new headquarters for the Bee’ah waste management company in Sharjah, UAE. The company has come up with ‘contactless pathways’, whereby employees rarely need to touch the building with their hands.
Office doors open automatically using motion sensors and facial recognition, while lifts - and even a coffee - can be ordered from a smartphone.
Simple technology like Amazon Alexa for Business, for example, could become a new interface and remove the need for physically pushing a button or touching a surface in an office.
Technology could also be used to remind employees of social distancing. Cushman & Wakefield has installed beacons into its office to track employees’ movements via their mobile phones, potentially sending alerts when six-feet rules are breached.
Similarly, Video conferencing would not restrict to work from but also extends to offices to avoid large meetings in conference rooms.
Cubicles will be back
Offices are looking at adding the clear barriers between desks, perhaps even in between sinks in corporate bathrooms as Toyota Mississippi did. Toyota has installed transparent barriers (plexiglass) at the tables and desks and workstations. One Italian design firm reimagined airline seating with clear partitions between passengers. Nike office in Memphis, Tennessee, United States, among others have installed plexiglass as barriers at the desks.
Cubicles that appeared in US offices in the 1960s as a way to encourage personalization, movement, and meaningful interactions among office workers, will get back into trend for altogether a different reason- workplace health & safety.
The six feet rule
Global real estate company Cushman & Wakefield has risen to the challenge with a new design. It's called the Six Feet Office. It's a way of transforming existing offices into places where the six-feet distance rule - which governments may continue to mandate - can be observed.
According to the Cushman & Wakefield’s the 6 feet office concept consists of six elements:
- 6 Feet Quick Scan: A concise but thorough analysis of the current working environment in the field of virus safety and any other opportunities for improvement.
- 6 Feet Rules: A set of simple and clear workable agreements and rules of conduct that put the safety of everyone first.
- 6 Feet Routing: A visually displayed and unique routing for each office, making traffic flows completely safe.
- 6 Feet Workstation: An adapted and fully equipped workplace at which the user can work safely.
- 6 Feet Facility: A trained employee who advises on and operationally ensures an optimally functioning and safe facility environment.
- 6 Feet Certificate: A certificate stating that measures have been taken to implement a virus-safe working environment.
Coworking to increase?
Proponents of coworking spaces have long argued that companies managing flexible office space would be able to weather a recession. While a number of clients at coworking spaces might choose to liquidate their space completely, coworking companies expect an influx of new clients looking to downsize from traditional office space with long lease terms into so-called flexible or coworking space.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, many large companies were increasingly taking advantage of the flexible terms of coworking space rather than taking on long-term leases. That’s likely to continue, perhaps even more rapidly.
Reconfigure flex spaces
Workplaces spaces like reception, conference rooms, etc. typically operate on a first-come-first serve basis and offer fewer desks than people. The immediate concern with this type of workplace is cleanliness and cross-contamination from multiple people sharing desks. These spaces may need to be used differently until the COVID-19 threat is over.
To reduce the spread of germs plans to phase employees back into these environments may involve dedicating seats to individuals for a set period of time. If alternating the occupants assigned to each desk on different days or weeks, clearly communicating the plan with cleaning services will be paramount for instilling confidence in staff that desks have been sanitized.
To have or not have isolation rooms
In the event, an employee begins exhibiting symptoms — whether in building lobbies, common areas, or tenant spaces — organizations will need the ability to isolate anyone who is or becomes symptomatic while at work. Designating and communicating spaces so that every manager and employee knows their location and purpose is necessary for ensuring workers’ well-being.
An isolation space can be any type of enclosed room. Considerations should be taken for special cleaning protocols in these spaces, ideally with special ventilation or negative air pressure to further reduce exposure to others in the area.
An office in Amsterdam designed by Cushman & Wakefield, a property-services group, has desks surrounded by a zone of color-coded carpet to let people know when they are getting too close. At the start of the day, workers pick up a paper desk pad on which to rest their laptop, and which is discarded when they leave. Arrows on the floor guide them to move around clockwise.
Offices can also use more cues and stickers like the ones used for road markings. From squash-court-style lines in lobbies to standing spots in lifts, and form circles around desks to lanes in corridors, the floors and walls of our offices are likely to be covered in visual instructions.
You can also encourage employees to walk clockwise, creating a one-way flow to minimize transmission, as adopted by many hospitals during the current outbreak.
As we proceed into the months ahead, and plans commence for the return to the office, we hope these considerations can support the balance of business continuity and the safety of workers everywhere.