The Covid-19 pandemic is set to leave a lasting legacy in how companies use office space.
With millions of people working from home at the moment, companies are taking a long, hard look at workplace design as they re-think future office space needs when lockdown restrictions end.
Studies, concepts and strategies I’ve read suggest that common themes for an optimal ‘return to the office’ solution include touchless technology, cleaning strategies and re-planned areas to maintain distancing with one-way circulation.
My concern as we strive for the right balance between safety and efficiency is that we lose sight of what is really needed. Designers are being inundated with types of acrylic screens for desks, hand sanitiser dispensers and distancing signage, to the point where it feels like the toilet roll purchasing frenzy of a few weeks ago.
Redefine, not redesign
There’s pressure to acquire all sorts of different things as soon as possible ready for a return to office working, but what’s normal about communicating with your colleagues through a plastic screen? I’m not saying in the short term these aren’t necessary measures to adopt; but it shouldn’t just be about re-designing the office environment. Instead, we should start to re-define it.
At the beginning of the crisis, a clear head and a global, holistic perspective were our best tools and, going back to our offices, we should apply the same approach. Yes, some recent studies are based on what countries where restrictions have been lifted for weeks, like China, are doing, but it is worth remembering that we’re not only trying to avoid contagion risks. For the last few years, companies were already looking into more flexible working, using videoconferencing to avoid unnecessary travel and working from home. In some ways the lockdown was a catalyst to really test these new measures and analyse their impact on workforce efficiency.
Working from home revolution
Wellbeing was also gaining prominence in office design, and we already know this is intrinsically linked to staff absenteeism, physical and mental health. This will be at the heart of future office design and the notion of people working from their kitchen table, sofa or ironing board, with children and dogs in the background of conference calls, will soon be part of the workplace normal. While it’s been harder to draw a line between work and private time, there has been an element of comfort that may have been good for productivity.
We’ve undergone an unprecedented global experiment where people have relocated from the office to home and shown they can be just as efficient. This raises the question on returning to the office – what do we want from the workplace when Covid-19 restrictions end? The solution will lie in flexible and adaptable environments that support collaboration and ideas sharing while integrated with the communications technology needed for colleagues working remotely.
Office working will be here after the pandemic – just get ready for rapid acceleration in the forward-thinking design and behavioural measures being discussed pre-pandemic.