As companies and their employees across the UK turn their thoughts to a gradual return to a more normal working environment, the issue we all have to address is what the new norm will be and how offices will function with social distancing not just a concern but a requirement.
Frank Lloyd Wright said that tearing down office walls would democratize the workplace, both literally and socially. And while many of today’s designers maintain the belief that an open environment allows employees to collaborate more easily, others think high density open plan areas lead to a distracted workforce.
Covid-19 adds a new dimension to that discussion. Now it’s not just about collaboration and attention…it’s about being safe. The comments of Donald Milton, an expert in airborne disease at the University of Maryland cannot be ignored. He said: “You could space people out, and if you’re doing that in combination with a reasonable amount of ventilation and sanitation, you should be able to have a reasonably safe space”.
No one is suggesting the cubicle, common in offices in the 1950’s and 60’s, should become the ‘new black’ but it is clear that companies need to review their operations and available space carefully and identify what can be achieved to ensure the optimum balance of safety and business performance.
The average desk footprint measures 1400 x 800 with co-workers often grouped in banks of 4, 6 and 8. Common areas, including meeting rooms, breakout areas and town hall configurations were mainly designed to maximise spatial efficiency, none taking into consideration the effects an air borne virus may have.
For most, expanding office space is neither practical nor economic and alternative solutions must be considered. So how do we return to work safely, work efficiently and adhere to the 2m guidelines within the current design of the office?
WorkSpace Design is currently looking at proposals for clients which incorporate features specifically designed to make staff and visitors safe. Among them are a one-way system for access through the office. Here innovative floor designs will negate the need for signage and navigate staff and visitors in a safe and controlled manner.
Desk screening and furniture design is a key part of the solution in some work environments. Most furniture manufacturers are launching designs which protect staff where face to face working is unavoidable.
Of course, there are other steps which can be taken and we are working with clients to take these into account. It is accepted that open plan design is unsympathetic to new guidelines, but the introduction of rotational working helps by ensuring some desk positions are made redundant.
We are also working to help clients embrace technology. That includes reviewing meeting room configurations and questioning their numbers and use. The numbers attending meetings can be reduced by using the numerous video conferencing portals that are available.
In addition we are focused on solutions to avoid cocooning by providing away from the desk spaces to promote safe collaboration and Smartworking.
We ask that our clients consider:
- Office access. Use proximity cards, not keypads.
- Introduce sanitation stations to ‘dead’ space areas.
- Ensure good ventilation is provided to the office and investigate improving air quality and filtration systems.
- Hot desking should be avoided. If this is not practical ensure surfaces are sanitised daily. Introduce and promote dedicated away from the desk storage wherever practical. Personal bags etc should be excluded from the immediate working area.
Adapting to the challenges ahead, whilst introducing new workplace strategies, will be challenging for all. But with careful planning and implementation it can be done.