Offices are having a clear out

If a return to the office does go ahead, several questions remain unanswered, such as: in what shape will this take? in which spaces? with what restrictions?

Our cities are, among other things, the result of successive adaptations to diseases and epidemics. The sewerage system we now know was developed following the major outbreaks of cholera in the 19th century. The bright, ventilated spaces of Tuberculosis (TB) treatment facilities have also had a lasting effect on modern architecture. In a more modest way, copper doorknobs and door handles are known for their germicide properties.

As we speak, many countries around the world are getting ready to bounce back, but the office environment is the one subjected to all kinds of speculation. As one of the first countries affected by the coronavirus, South Korea has already taken a step backwards going by a recent study on the very rapid spread of Covid-19 in an open floor plan… How can we guarantee the safety of workers in confined spaces? How can we avoid new waves of contamination in cities, especially in those with higher density? And how will these necessary short-term adjustments fit into the deeper changes made to how we work? We have taken an in-depth look at these both pressing and prickly questions.


Open floor plans under the spotlight 

While the epidemic continues to run rampant, in recent weeks, and probably for many more, the open office floor plan has been seriously put under the microscope. Designed in the 1950s, with the idea of creating an environment with more interaction and less social segregation, the model has drawn strong criticism long before the pandemic. The original prototype championed by Frank Lloyd Wright, as displayed in SC Johnson’s Administration Building, has more or less served its cost-cutting purpose well, while removing privacy at work to a large extent. This criticism, which was interesting before the crisis, is now crucial and raises the question of a new workspace set-up.  In these challenging times, all large companies are preparing radical social distancing plans. At ENGIE, where a detailed description of its programme has been issued, plans have been made for a gradual return to work (20% of the workforce to begin with), a mandatory wearing of face masks, temperature checks for those who wish to do so, the self-isolation of workers at risk, staff rotation, redesigned offices to ensure 1.5m of safe distance between people, a meeting room capacity reduction of 50% (5 people maximum), or even rules on the use of lifts.


Is space making a comeback? 

The first consequence of Covid-19 on workspaces will no doubt be the appreciation for space in its current form. “Social distancing”, a new paradigm of our lives during the pandemic, is bound to take root in workspaces. Some industry players, like Cushman & Wakefield, are already trying to lay the groundwork for the office of tomorrow. With its concept of The 6 Feet Office, this corporate real estate leader has come up with a solution to place social distancing at the centre of the office environment. Workstations, routing systems, training, certification: all work environment aspects are included. Vincent Dubois, managing director at Archimage, an architecture agency specialising in the organisation of workspaces, imagines in the French daily newspaper, Le Monde, more modular designs, where he suggests “a variable geometric layout, with for example one non-crisis version consisting of ten offices and one version for crisis situations, with three offices”. Until such developments, Covid-19 marks the comeback of the “cubicle”, an outdated symbol of soulless office life.


At the city level, the epidemic raises the question of both population density and the relationship between the centre and the outskirts. For this reason, professional mobility is at the heart of the matter. Proponents of low density building are emerging from their disfavour, bolstered by Wuhan’s post-lockdown figures, which show a significant increase in commuting by car, due to a fear of using public transport. In The Guardian, Sara Jensen Carr, an architecture professor writes: “The pandemic is already giving ammunition to people who are naturally sceptical of density and want to promote the car-centric suburbs.”. Conversely, Paris intends to build on its efforts to reduce car use after the lockdown. The city plans to focus on new bike lanes in order to facilitate social distancing and limit pollution. Extending out to the most distant suburbs, the bike lanes would provide a possible commuting alternative. For Isabelle Lambert, Prospective Project Manager at Leonard and co-author of the report The Future of Work – Trends that are Revolutionising New Forms of Work (“Co-working hubs are likely to be growing on the outskirts of cities. These hubs meet the needs of workers who are increasingly required to work remotely, but who wish to separate their work environment from their home environment.”

Two opposing visions of professional mobility which suggest a major political battle, at a time when, under less favourable conditions, some workers are not lucky enough to raise this type of question. In Qatar, Amnesty International has already deplored the impact of Covid-19 in crowded labour camps…


Building management turned upside down

Beyond architecture and urban planning, all building management has been transformed. The World Health Organization has already issued specific recommendations for effective implementation of measures in workspaces. Recommendations include: regular surface disinfection, respiratory hygiene, temperature checks where permitted by legislation or on a voluntary basis, detailed tracking of meetings and their participants, confinement measures within the workspace, etc. These new rules are giving rise to technological advances within office buildings. In Shanghai, for example, the Wanjing Soho complex uses thermal imaging to check the temperature of each person entering the building. These systems are intended to be adapted to different legislative contexts, but social distancing must be made possible everywhere. Where facial recognition is impossible to bring in, low-tech solutions such as signage systems can remind everyone to keep their distance.

Technologies and design methods which allow for social distancing were already being researched before the Covid-19 crisis. The current situation is likely to speed up efforts to deploy them. The headquarters of waste management company Bee’ah, built by Zaha Hadid in the United Arab Emirates, is based on the idea of “contactless pathways”. Employees can move around the building without touching any surfaces. Lifts are called using a smartphone and doors open using facial recognition technology…Contactless architecture or the development of antibacterial materials are being recommended more just about everywhere. But to make this kind of services available to occupants, buildings must be equipped with the necessary infrastructure: this is where the well-established Smart IoT comes in. With this in mind, The Smart Building Alliance, at the outset of the crisis, called for the implementation of a Marshall Plan to roll out such infrastructure.


An expansion of remote working culture

Generally speaking, the experience of the pandemic is part of the reshaping of the world of work. The recent need to reduce workspace density, opens the door, for example, to the more widespread remote working, which was already under way before the outbreak. For this to be successful, a new corporate culture is needed, which some are already trying to work out. This is the case for HBR, who imagine normalising new home workspaces. Others are trying to capitalise on more embodied remote communication. Going beyond the main players such as Zoom, Skype or Slack, virtual meeting technology is already promising a context where distance is no barrier to communication. The start-up Spatial offers a convincing hologram solution, although it can be greatly improved. While, video games are becoming the basis for political disputes. Videoconferencing robots, while slightly worrying, continue to be an effective solution. Virtual Reality is beginning to deliver on its promise of teleportation with players such as MeetinVR, Dream, or the French-based TechViz.


The pandemic could therefore accelerate an already promising trend. Prior to the Covid crisis, approximately 5.3% of EU employees worked from home (0.5% in Bulgaria, 7% in France and 14.1% in the Netherlands), up from 4.7% in 2008. While in France, the widespread adoption of remote working is still a subject of debate: can we expect remote working practices to facilitate their integration? Should we see the exodus of workers outside of cities when the lockdown was announced as the emergence of new practices? These issues raise social issues related to the possibility of, although unevenly distributed, remote working, quality of life, nursery and mobility services, etc. Currently, there has been a study carried out by Stanford in 2017 which seems to demonstrate the positive results linked with remote working when it is voluntary. Of a sample of 500 people doing the same job, 250 were invited to work from home. The results were interesting: 13% higher productivity, $2,000 saved each year in workspace rental costs, an improved attrition rate and better job satisfaction.


Over the weeks ahead, the challenge of post-lockdown will be to succeed in bringing workers together in the workplace in compliance with sanitation rules. However, in the longer term, the coronavirus crisis will shed new light on the usefulness given to physical offices and head offices. The “Future of Work” report produced by Leonard and recently published, provides some answers to these questions. After two months in which most offices will have remained empty, the conclusions reached will be more relevant than ever.

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