What could be the next moves in office design?
In recent years, the UK had, in common with offices worldwide, seen a shift to flexible office environments. These were spaces that encouraged interaction and collaboration, together with sharing of spaces and facilities to maximise efficiency and return on investment. Features of offices included collaboration and social spaces with smaller workstations; many of those being non-assigned or “hot desks”. Achieving higher occupational densities was seen by office managers as a good thing.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic.
Within a couple of weeks those organisations with the capability to let their staff work remotely had to drive an immediate implementation of home working. Many organisations had key infrastructure in place already; IT services in the cloud, staff provided with mobile devices and necessary connectivity, even some emerging policies for homeworking.
At SGP, we had invested in provision of hardware, software and infrastructure, and we had a business continuity plan. But all this was designed to support us working on the move and occasionally at home, and to support those key collaborative activities around planning and design that ordinarily took place in the office. The business continuity plan was there to deal with local emergencies, rather than to support wholesale migration of our workforce to home working. As it turned out, Covid-19 was a nationwide emergency and our staff did move to home working – all 90 of us – with surprisingly little drama.
Five weeks into lockdown, we are now beginning to think about a return to a way of working that is more familiar; knowing it will not be anything like the ‘normal’ we have come to understand. We consider whether there will there be any offices in the future, or at any rate like the ones we use now. Covid-19 is set to be with us for a long time, and worker and employer confidence is understandably affected. What does this mean for the future of the office as we know it?
From my perspective, the absence of social interaction and the ability to group around a drawing and share ideas in person with my colleagues has been the biggest disadvantage of the pandemic. We can all ruminate on the possible benefits of working at home; less commuting, less expenditure, smaller carbon footprint and we may even congratulate ourselves on ‘how well’ we have adapted to the lockdown. We will readily compare the advantages of conferencing platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom and reflect on how much we can get done without the distractions of colleagues.
What we’ll probably overlook is the fact that we are not getting as much exercise as we did, even walking around the office, our eyes are probably straining a bit from focusing on a wall a few metres away, we’re probably a few pounds heavier than we were, and we’ll really be missing the company of colleagues and the social benefits you only get from being with other people. We will probably lose sight of the additional hours we have spent on teleconferences conveying information or an opinion that would hitherto have been done with a quick sketch or a well-judged raising of an eyebrow.
Even now, we are beginning to contemplate a future that is likely to feature a greater proportion of home working; with time shared between the office and home. With that will come the possible challenge of taking steps to ensure the long-term suitability of homeworking setups to safeguard staff welfare. For some, there may not be an option to work at home, due to lack of space, connectivity or household pressures.
Video conferencing will certainly be more commonplace and traveling the length of the country for a two-hour meeting will be considered less essential or even undesirable. We will be better able to differentiate between meetings that need to be done in person and those that can be done remotely.
Like many employers, SGP has begun to think about how we might rearrange our offices and implement rota attendance of personnel to reduce densities and achieve recommended social distancing as we begin to return to work. We have prepared some hit-and miss desk plans, and we will think about which teams and people might be in on what days, all on the basis that implementing such measures might be able to control or inhibit the spread of coronavirus.
I do wonder though; are we just kidding ourselves?
An office environment is not like the outdoors; you cannot cross the street to get out of someone’s way and maintain that two-metre separation. Indoor environments are full of touch surfaces; handles, switches, kettles, copiers, shared lavatories, accessways, staircases, lifts. Some offices do not have opening windows and rely on mechanical ventilation systems that recirculate a proportion of the air. All this will need to be considered along with, of course, the unpredictable behaviours of people.
As we navigate our return to a new ‘normal’, we will certainly look for the most robust advice we can find and do our best as employers to implement measures that will do as much as possible to reduce risk to our workforce, their families and the community. But we will be under no illusion that this will simply reduce risk, rather than eliminate it completely.
How will coronavirus affect office design?
In the short term we, and countless other businesses I expect, will be looking at ways to adapt our existing workplaces and to manage our staff on a temporary basis to support a planned return to more normal workplace operation. We need it, the economy needs it, our families probably need it!
We may limit the number of meetings, space out our workstations, stagger rest and meal breaks and develop enhanced corporate and personal cleaning regimes. After weeks of lockdown, people will understandably have some anxieties about mixing in the workplace and much of what we do will be to ameliorate those concerns. We also anticipate that some will be eager to return to something that resembles work, to engage with colleagues and perhaps to escape their homes – if only for a while.
We will expect this transitional period to be in operation for many months; until enough is known about Covid-19 and its control. The probability is that any sense of normality will not return fully until a vaccination programme is implemented and proven to be effective.
So, if people can work at home, why would we go to the trouble to adapt workplaces at all? Why not leave everyone working at home and just carry on as we are now? While we may kid ourselves that working at home is great, it is not. Not really, not all the time.
The impacts of working at home in less-than-optimum conditions, in isolation, without even the exercise of a daily commute, will have a long-term impact on physical and mental wellbeing. Humans are, by and large, social creatures and, for design professions like ours, collaboration, teamworking and interaction are key to successful outcomes and personal fulfilment.
Will the permanent workplace of the future be different, ie will workplaces have social distancing and contamination control as key design drivers? Plastic pods and sneeze screens between desks? I do hope not. The idea of being in a shared space without the ability to interact socially with colleagues would be worse than being in isolation. Were that the option, I would be inclined to stay at home as much as possible and remove the temptation.
What will change, I think, is that employers, including us, will be more receptive to the idea of remote working – be it at home or elsewhere – and will embrace with more enthusiasm online collaboration platforms and virtual meeting technology. We have been compelled to use tools that may have been new to us just weeks ago, we have learned that we can trust our teams to honour their employment commitments and get work done, even when they are out of sight.
We have learned that working some days without distraction or lengthy commutes can be beneficial. The air is cleaner, the roads are quieter, some of those household jobs are getting done. If we have been unaffected by financial worries, we may even have found life less stressful.
We find that we must prepare more if virtual meetings are to work properly. We will develop our personal presentation techniques and become more confident talking through machines. We will perhaps be more precise in our speech to avoid misunderstandings and compensate for the absence of those nuances that only personal interaction gives. As managers we will perhaps have become more diligent in the preparation and dissemination of information and instructions to our colleagues.
In summary, I am sure we will continue to adapt and respond to the situation as it unfolds and to work to support the recovery of the UK economy. We will not kid ourselves that this is going to be over any time soon and we will be optimistic that Covid-19 will be ultimately controlled through widely available vaccination programmes. We will make such temporary changes to our workplaces and habits as are necessary to reduce likelihood of infection spread as much as we can, but we will not let it rule our lives.
When we come out of the other side, as we will, we will have learnt from those things that worked well and the benefits that have, ironically, been brought to our working habits and work/life balance by Covid-19. We will perhaps do less commuting, less inter-city travelling for meetings and be better at organising, managing, communicating and presenting. We will perhaps have begun to learn what really matters to us and to fit it in around our work.
We will probably find what other organisations have done, that we perhaps do not need a workstation for everyone, and that maybe agile working does have something to offer after all. Maybe we won’t need quite as much space as we once thought we would when we bounce back and continue to grow!
But, above all, I will look forward to a time when my team can sit round a communal table, make drawings, exchange views, have coffee and cake, and laugh! Importantly, we will celebrate that we can all do it together.