Considerations for post-Covid19 Workplace Design

26 June 2020
Considerations for post-Covid19 Workplace Design

The last few months of social distancing have provided a unique opportunity to undertake a worldwide experiment into how we work, travel, and engage with each other. While there have been significant negative health implications of illness and fatalities, the virus has also called into question many of our assumptions about how we should live, work and play. It has given us a chance to trial adjustments to our habits which may in fact have some long-term benefits and even help tackle environmental problems such as climate change and global warming. The pandemic has inadvertently forced us to pause, question fundamental assumptions and consider further possibilities for reinvention and global reforms.

As the infection curves for Covid-19 in many countries have started to flatten, governments are preparing to kickstart their struggling economies and get people back into the workplace. While remote working has proved surprisingly effective for many, a complete lack of face-to-face interaction is something that we struggle with as social beings. Undoubtedly, the centralized workplace or office base still has a future. At the same time, once we are cleared to return to the office, how can we convince people that the workplace is safe and poses no health risk? Equally, as trust between employers and employees has heightened through the success of remote working, the idea of everyone working together in one location all the time is no longer essential. Many staff and employers will now promote and seek a combination of remote and centralised working.

Figure 1 – Agile workers at the Zendesk HQ Office, Dublin. Workplace design completed by MOLA Architecture in 2018

MOLA Architecture, as leaders in workplace design, have a prepared the following paper to explore concepts and examine the implications in the short and long term of these new forms of working. Creating a collegiate working environment while maintaining social distancing requires new work practises. Availing of both technological and practical solutions, the traditional workplace model can be transformed into a safer environment. Remote working can assist to reduce office occupancies in the short term, but its benefits for employee’s work/life balance, reducing commuting times and CO2 emissions could mean that it becomes the norm. Hold open devices on doors, automated opening systems, controlled circulation routes, carefully selected materials, compartmentalization and lower occupancy densities are amongst some the factors identified by the Mola Workplace team which will have an impact on the workplace of the future.

Lessons from the lockdown

When the lockdown arrived in March 2020, many companies were taken by surprise and had to adapt quickly in order to continue their operations. Nearly over-night, our ‘place’ of work transitioned from physical to virtual almost completely.

For some of our international clients, remote work and work-from-home policies have been common-place long before Covid19, so it was no surprise to learn* that their workforce adapted quickly to full-scale remote operations. For other more traditional companies, it has been a big learning curve, but with the help of advanced video-conferencing technology and communication apps and tools, they were able to facilitate team collaboration and keep up productivity. Even when it came to employee engagement and maintaining office “culture”, a key component for a successful workplace, digital platforms have enabled many opportunities for socializing and team bonding, in the shape of virtual Friday night drinks, games and quizzes, competitions, etc. Had this pandemic occurred 10 years ago its impact on economies and small businesses would have been far more destructive. Technology may have saved the day!

Figure 2 – Socially distanced open plan desking layout, with reduced occupancy

The successful trials of working from home world-wide could mean that employees will come back to the office hoping that some of their newly-found liberties in terms of flexibility and work-life-balance to continue. It also provided an opportunity for employers to reassess the best use of their real estate and explore new growth opportunities. Having less people in the office at the same time can help cut down on travel costs, free up crucial floor space to allow for social distancing or future expansion, and even contribute to reduced emissions with a less congested traffic in the city.

During the lockdown, we have also been forced to revisit our definition of what is considered ‘essential’, be it a need, a service, or social interaction with other people. Companies will need to review their existing team structures and identify those instances where collaboration and meetings must happen in order to prioritise these essential interactions. Space utilisation tracking and room-booking technology can play a key role in helping companies monitor the use of space and defining these priorities.

Figure 2 – Socially distanced open plan desking layout, with reduced occupancy

Implications on Workplace Strategy

As first steps in our return to the workplace, office space will need to be retrofitted in line with government guidelines for social distancing and introduce strict cleaning and safety measures. MOLA has been assisting our clients in this process to devise a phased ‘Return to Office’ strategy, with advice on immediate measures which can be taken to reorganize their space without too much disruption or financial investment.  The exercises we did for social distancing in open plan offices allowed for a reduced occupancy ranging between 30% to 50%, depending on existing desk sizes and space available. We’ve also looked at reduced meeting room usage, one-way circulation systems and increased signage and visual cues to help people adhere to the guidelines.

However, this is a temporary bridging phase until we learn more about the virus.  Indeed, if a vaccine is found, it will take pressure off office reformation, however it is inevitable that there will be a long-term change in the design of our workplace.  Some fear a second wave of Covid19 and there is also the looming uncertainty of future pandemics. The office must immediately be made safe, but also more resilient and more adaptive to future threats. In the past, many planning strategies have been driven by density and cost, facilitating high levels of human interaction to fuel creativity, innovation, speed, and agility.  With the high rental costs associated with office real estate, there has been a consistent drive since the 1970’s to increase office densities and reduce the space allocated to workstations-  this has seen 2000×2000 L-shaped workstations replaced in recent times with 1200mm sit stand desks.  Break out spaces, “phone booths” and “caves” have been provided in tandem with smaller workstations to provide a variation of workplace environments.  Going forward however, offices will need to be more flexible and adapt easily to possible economic, climate and health disruptions.

Figure 4 – Left: Citrix HQ Dublin, Right: Avolon HQ Dublin; Two projects completed by Mola featuring contactless building access and circulation

Here are some of the key drivers we think will have a lasting influence on the approach we take to workplace design post-Covid19:

Contactless technology. Having witnessed the global spread of a deadly virus through direct contact and air transmission, many of us will never interact in the same way with the surfaces around us. Incorporating automation and voice activation tools in high traffic or public spaces could instantly minimize touchpoints and limit the chance of contact exposure to germs.  Using various presence-detection technologies could minimize the need to directly touch door hardware, elevator call buttons, photocopiers and equipment, turning on lights, or using water taps.

Materials: In the future, we will have to address people’s fear of an invisible enemy which could be residing on surfaces all around us. It is very important to rethink our use of tactile materials, particularly in public spaces, and perhaps give special consideration to those which are easy to clean, inherently antibacterial or even self-sanitizing.

Materials: In the future, we will have to address people’s fear of an invisible enemy which could be residing on surfaces all around us. It is very important to rethink our use of tactile materials, particularly in public spaces, and perhaps give special consideration to those which are easy to clean, inherently antibacterial or even self-sanitizing.

Ceramic tiles are naturally non-toxic: extended cooking at over 1,200°C eliminates any harmful biological residue, including VOCs and other petroleum derivatives.  Unlike wood, which is porous and difficult to treat, porcelain stoneware features a compact surface that is easy to clean and doesn’t trap mites, mould, and other irritating substances.

Copper and its alloys (brass, bronze etc) exhibit inherent antimicrobial properties, making them ideal for touch-surface applications in high-traffic and public spaces such as taps, door handles or reception desks for example.

Some existing surfaces can even be retrofitted with self-cleaning, nano-septic films. These use a mineral nanocrystal powered by any visible light to create an oxidation reaction that cause the material to self-sterilize. Nano-septic films can be applied to door handles, desktops, flooring and even touchscreens.

Figure 5 – Left: Maples FS Offices Dublin, featuring copper wall cladding in the staff canteen, Right: The Hyatt Centric Hotel, Liberties – featuring a copper bar counter;

UV light technology

Scientists have been using the airborne antimicrobial potential of UVC light technology for years to sterilize health equipment and unoccupied hospital rooms, however it’s use has been limited as UVC light sources can have carcinogenic impacts and cause damage to the human cornea. Recent scientific research from Columbia University has been looking into the use of a particular wavelength of ultraviolet light, known as far-UVC, which can effectively kill viruses and bacteria without causing any harm to human skin, eyes and other tissues. The researchers are now testing the light against the SARS-CoV-2 virus and if effective, it has the potential to be widely used in public places, even in the presence of humans, to kill and prevent the spread of future viruses as well as epidemics or pandemics.

Compartmentalization: There is much speculative discussion in the industry around the end of the open plan office and glorious ‘return of the cubicle’. Whilst the partition screens around a cubicle may provide a physical barrier between people and to some extent stop the spread of germs, the cellular office can have a negative impact on workplace culture and collaboration.  As we remodel our workplace to reduce the risk of virus or germ transmission, we must not “fix” the office in a way that weakens community, creativity, productivity or the other keys to a successful operation. Going back to the office only to continue working on your own and in isolation doesn’t really benefit either the employer or the employee.

In our view, the office of the future will still benefit from areas of open plan desks in order to support communication and team-working, but it would be compartmentalized into smaller “neighbourhoods” dedicated on a team basis rather than fully open floor plates. We may see the introduction of more partitions between departments each with their own dedicated meeting rooms and collaboration zones. Desk sizes could start increasing again to effectively implement greater physical distancing, and corridors and doorways will be wider to allow for passing and more space for office users. In short, the office may have reduced occupancy levels and a lower density than pre-COVID but will rely on a combination of flexible working hours, staggering of workforce and remote working to supplement the shortfall.

Figure 6 – ‘Town Planning’ concept development, showing an office plate divided into smaller neighbourhoods

Flexible Spaces

Whilst it may be reasonable to retrofit meeting rooms to allow for small groups to meet face-to-face and maintaining the social distance guideline, this will be difficult for face-to-face meetings in large groups.  The traditional board meetings in a large conference room may become a thing of the past. A large gathering may be better accommodated in a flexible and transforming space, which can also serve other purposes. Such a space may include a large lobby that leads into the canteen, which can also serve as an “all-hands” space, but with the use of technology and flexible furniture, can be reconfigured to host larger group meetings at a safe distance. More companies may adopt elements of agile working such as daily stand-ups, walk-and-talk meetings and make use of outdoor space for meetings.

Figure 7 – 1WML Townhall Space, completed by Mola in 2018. The multifunctional space serves as main lobby, reception and cafe and can also be transformed into a venue with 270 people capacity.

Mobile Workers – It seems likely that many of us will continue to work from home, even partially, after government restrictions are lifted.  A staggered workforce and alternating shifts in the office may not be just a temporary solution but could become standard practice. Ensuring that employees are equipped to work from anywhere gives companies the advantage of being able to adapt quickly to unforeseen circumstances, such as future pandemics. With a mobile workforce, it is also easier to introduce clean desk policies which ensure the office is easier to sanitise every day. During the lockdown, some of our clients have been contributing towards their employee’s home set-up given the home is now considered a legitimate workspace. This could be a strategy other companies may consider in the future and invest in the home-office as an extension of the workplace.

Figure 8: Mobile employees working in informal areas at the Zendesk HQ office, Dublin.

Virtual Collaboration As remote working seems to be here to stay and travel may be limited for a very long time, companies will have to ensure they provide their employees with access to the right technologies to support collaboration. Video-conferencing screens may grow even bigger and may be distributed more widely in office layouts to improve the experience for global and mobile teams. Camera quality will also play a huge role to bringing people closer together digitally. 

Conclusion

The workplace connects people and fosters relationships, building communities which shape the company culture. Making sure that human connection isn’t compromised by the social distancing measures and keeping the culture alive while people are apart in a virtual environment is essential. Culture isn’t a series of bullet points on a page on attitude and behavior. It is the ethos and spirit of all members, espoused by more senior members of staff and passed on to more recent arrivals through interaction, engagement, and example.

We will all go back to work as slightly different people, with new fears, different expectations and maybe motivations. Companies will have to be conscious of the anxiety people have been living with in the past few months and may continue to go through for a while. Addressing their employee’s physical and mental health and considering ‘wellbeing at work’ when they reopen the doors to the office may play an even stronger role in how companies will attract, retain and inspire talent.  The mental health implications of continued remote working, isolation from colleagues and a recognition of the human need for interaction will also be key considerations in how companies deal with implementing staggered working arrangements or how they deal with future out-breaks or surges in crises such as Covid-19.

Undoubtedly, the Covid19 pandemic has been devastating to millions of people across the world and brought along lots of threats, pain and loss. However, this crisis has forced us to stop and take a breather and, in many ‘socially distanced’ ways, brought us even closer together. From balcony sing-alongs, to shopping for the cocooning neighbors, we have revived a beautiful community spirit and solidarity which helped us get through this together. The lockdown provided us with an opportunity to pause, reflect, and re-align with our core principles and goals. It may well also be the right opportunity to address those physical inadequacies in our workplaces, the spatial shortfalls, the gradual decline in standards and order, a time for rehabilitation and course-correcting.

*our Workplace Team has conducted interviews with several of our past and current clients to find out how they have been affected by the pandemic and the lockdown

Photo credits: Donal Murphy Photography

Graphics: MOLA Architecture

Contributors: Emanuela Cepoiu, Paul Finnegan, Ralph Bingham, Naomi Lloyd, Michael O’Carroll

About The Author

ralph@mola.ie