How COVID-19 Will Change Office Spaces
The era of the open office may be over.
By Jules Romero | June 12, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic took the world by storm. Due to its highly infectious nature, it was able to transform from an isolated virus in Wuhan, China, to a full-blown global crisis. As restrictions begin to be lifted, changes will have to be made.
The “new normal” post-coronavirus will be like nothing we have experienced before. For the sake of public health and safety, members of all sectors will have to cooperate when adjusting to new norms and practices.
The workplace is not exempt from change. We can expect the design and practices of standard corporate offices to change as the economy begins to restart.
Today, we’ve detailed the changes that are most likely to take place in offices after the coronavirus.
What Is Social Distancing?
If you have been watching the news, you would know that the best way to mitigate the spread of a highly infectious disease such as the coronavirus is by practicing social distancing. But what exactly is social distancing?
Social distancing simply refers to keeping a safe distance between yourself and people who reside outside of your home. There are three main principles to social distancing, as stated by the World Health Organization:
- Maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from other people.
- Do not gather in groups.
- Avoid visiting crowded areas and do not attend mass gatherings.
Aside from the usual steps taken to disinfect infected surfaces, keeping a safe distance between yourself and other people is perhaps the best way we can avoid the spread of the coronavirus.
Minimize the amount of interaction you have with other people, especially in enclosed spaces wherein the virus may be easily transmitted. Remember, people can spread the virus before they even know there are sick. Therefore, it is best to stay away from others as much as possible even though you or they may not exhibit symptoms of the disease.
The Importance of Social Distancing
Now that we’ve discussed what social distancing is let’s go in-depth with the importance of the practice.
COVID-19 spreads primarily among people who remain in close contact for a prolonged period. The virus can spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or even talks. Droplets from the infected person’s nose or mouth can enter the mouths or noses of other people, thus infecting them.
People may also contract the coronavirus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it, aside from the direct transmission of the disease. COVID-19 can live for hours or even days on a given surface, depending on a host of factors such as sunlight, humidity, and the type of surface.
Social distancing effectively limits opportunities for you to come in contact with contaminated surfaces and infected people.
Despite the risk of severe illness being different for various demographics, anyone can get and spread COVID-19. Everyone plays an essential role in slowing the spread of the virus and protecting themselves and the people around them.
The Problem With Open Office Layouts
Offices have adopted an open office layout in recent years to cut down on costs and become more trendy. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright popularized the modern concept of the open office in the early 20th century. He believed that the design would effectively democratize the workplace by tearing down social and physical walls. The benefits of the layout proved to be enormous. Up to eighty years later, the open office layout has still been considered the gold standard for workplaces.
There is no specific definition of what constitutes an open office. However, open offices are generally considered to be distinct from cubicles and are commonly characterized by possessing a low barrier between employees or having no barrier at all. After the 2008 recession, open office plans grew even more in popularity as a means to save on operational costs. Open offices serve as a way for corporations to cram a higher number of employees into a smaller office space.
With the rise of open offices came a decline in face-to-face communication, as found by a study published by the Royal Society in 2018. The study states that employees began to socially withdraw due to fear of distracting others or being overheard. Fear of infection makes crowded spaces even more psychologically stressful, according to another study published in 2018.
The coronavirus can spread extremely quickly in a crowded office space, as found by an investigation published by South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control.
In their investigation, they found that on a floor of a call center where approximately 216 employees work, a staggering 94 employees tested positive for the virus. The Centers for Disease Control believes that the outbreak happened over merely sixteen days.
“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,” states Donald Milton, an expert in airborne disease transmission at the University of Maryland.
The Need for Change
Companies are preparing office table in the Philippines to open their offices for returning workers, despite no specific reopening date as of writing. The opening of offices worldwide is most likely to happen before there is an effective vaccine for the disease. This means that integrating social distancing measures into office plans is an absolute must.
As workers return to their offices, they will most likely be in for a surprise. Office spaces will be drastically different from the way they were before the coronavirus pandemic. Going through an event as devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic will prompt necessary change.
Offices Resembling Hospitals
Experts believe that society’s heightened awareness of contagious diseases may usher in a new type of office, in the longer term. They believe this new type of office will share various elements in common with a standard hospital.
Experts specializing in interior healthcare believe that the hospital layout will be beneficial in designing office spaces in the future. An important principle when choosing office furniture such as office table and office chairs is to select materials that can withstand heavy cleaning using caustic products. These materials may include stone or laminates, avoiding porous surfaces such as natural oiled wood.
Solution-dyed carpets with moisture barriers are also expected to be widely adopted in the workplace. This is because they can withstand heavy shampooing and disinfecting.
If you’re particularly hesitant to invest in these more durable materials, you can find comfort that these materials are not necessarily costlier than the more familiar alternatives. This is important to note because, in trying times such as these, few organizations will have a budget for an expensive re-design. Luckily, the cost difference is not too vast. You will be paying a fair price for the benefit of your workers and their health.
Many firms are also discussing utilizing air filtration systems that use ultra-violet (UV) light in office spaces. UV systems aren’t typically something that should be left on all day. Instead, companies may look into extensive UV cleaning once all the office staff has gone home. This ensures that the air remains as clean as it can be.
Another commonality that modern offices and hospitals will have is how accessible handwashing stations will become. Rather than reception areas being a place for loitering, expect reception areas and common areas to be fitted with handwashing stations.
Office layouts, in general, will also change. This refers to changing the paths that people walk along to get from point A to B. To minimize any contact with infected surfaces, offices will most likely be focused on getting from point A in the office to point B in the office in the most direct way possible. It is also essential to be conscious of what you come in contact with along the way.
Changes In the Individual Workstation
Organizations may be forced to reconsider the long-held tradition of assigned desks for the sake of cleanliness. Say goodbye to assigned seats.
Forcing employees to clear out their belongings at the end of each workday will allow for more effective disinfecting that simply cannot occur while desks are covered with clutter.
If foregoing assigned desks simply cannot be done, offices can alternatively keep a dedicated work station while maintaining a clean desk policy. This means that each employee will be given assigned a storage locker wherein they must store their belongings at the end of each workday, allowing their desks to be thoroughly disinfected each night.
In the short term, adding a significant amount of separation between workstations is a must. However, we can expect this trend to become more long-term as employees grow more accustomed to the privacy that this layout provides.
Offices may also opt to order custom-made enclosed pods designed to replace traditional workspaces. These structures will have four walls, with some of which being made of glass while others are opaque.
Specific Design Changes
So far, we’ve discussed how offices, in general, may rearrange their desks and seats to encourage social distancing. Now, let’s move on to a few specific measures that are being adopted by offices worldwide.
- Reception Desk As a Foyer
As offices reopen, the reception desk should be treated less as a place for checking in. Instead, the reception area should be thought of like a foyer wherein you can remove your coat, leave your umbrella, and wash your hands.
“Think of it as a mudroom.” says managing director of Gensler, Randy Howder. The fixtures present in reception desks should be low-touch or, more preferably, no-touch fixtures.
Buttons, door handles, and anything else that comes in contact with people often must be rendered touchless.
Like schools, companies may opt to take the temperature of their employees when they arrive and enforce the wearing of face masks. Companies might take employees’ temperatures when they arrive, and everyone will wear masks.
- Confined Work Stations
The implementation of “soft architecture” for workstations is also an option. This could include placing panels or sneeze guards on top of desks to allow for more confinement. Even better, organizations can order custom office desks that come with permanently-mounted panels. Employees will always have to ensure that their desk if clear of their belongings and their clutter by the end of each day, as mentioned earlier. This allows cleaning crews to disinfect each desk every evening thoroughly.
Consider ordering storage cabinets wherein your employees can store their personal belongings before heading home. The storage spaces should be big enough to hold all the usual desk decorations such as trinkets, photos, books, etc.
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