Office of the Future: The Impact of COVID-19 on Workspace Function and Design
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all of us physically, mentally, and emotionally and the long-term impacts of the virus have yet to be realized. Exploring the evolution of office space over the years, we know that changes in technology, society, and culture have all influenced office design over the years and the same is true of COVID-19.
As some aspects of daily life gradually return to normal, others will remain changed forever. With the gradual reopening of cities across the globe, we at Loop are examining how the effects of the pandemic will impact the future of office space in both the immediate and long-term.
The Pre-COVID Office Norm
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, physical office space was at a premium. Most organizations designed high-density office plans that squeezed in as many workers as possible. The popularity of hot-desking and clear desk policies surged as a means to maximize space efficiency, and private offices were generally reserved for the C-suite.
Most modern workplaces were buzzing, social spaces that often more closely resembled your friends’ living room, than the utilitarian cubicles of the ’90s. And while the emotional, physical, and social impacts of the open-plan office have been discussed and debated repeatedly, most organizations continued to favor the economy of space and collaborative nature that open-concept designs provided.
How will office space change as we move forward?
Although the future is impossible to predict, especially during these uncertain times, one thing is guaranteed, no matter how, when, or in some cases if we return to the physical office, things will be different. As organizations prepare for the return, new considerations must be measured to provide safe and productive work environments for all employees.
The physical and emotional needs of employees will take center stage, as physical workplaces are adapted to support the returning workforce.
Safety will become a number one priority as we transition into this new normal. This will include everything from ensuring access to protective equipment like masks, gloves, and sanitization supplies, to providing ample space to maintain social distancing protocols.
Employers will also prioritize office inclusivity, ensuring that no matter where employees are located physically, collaboration across teams remains seamless. Inclusivity measures won’t only consider new technologies that support collaboration across remote teams, but will also focus on removing accessibility barriers, be they physical or emotional to ensure employees with different health concerns, abilities, and ages are supported in the workplace.
Processes & Office Etiquette
The return to the office will bring with it a multitude of new processes and protocols. Sign-in sheets may sound reminiscent of old school punch-cards but will be important tools for organizations to monitor the potential spread of the virus. No-touch, digital solutions will provide the most efficient and safest option for organizations to trace close contacts should an employee become ill.
More frequent cleaning of office space will also be required going forward, with employees themselves taking on greater responsibility in the sanitization of office space. Wiping down common spaces like meeting rooms, phone booths, and door handles after use will become second nature.
Reduced office density will remain an important policy to keep employees safe. Remote work policies, which have been adopted in full across industries and organizations during the pandemic will become normalized for organizations that previously adhered to stricter policies.
This transitional period will also require additional care and attention from employees themselves, as we learn to respect the physical boundaries of our co-workers and maintain safe physical distance within shared spaces.
Floor Plans & Office Layouts
While some predict this could be the end of the open-concept office, a more likely outcome will see the introduction of highly-adaptable modular furniture. In the immediate future measures will include the reconfiguration of existing office spaces, with larger wide-sweeping structural changes to be introduced further in the future.
Office layouts will be of the first modifications made to existing office spaces. Initial updates will include the physical separation of workstations, ensuring a minimum distance of 2-meters between workers, as well as the addition of physical barriers such as screens or panels around individual desks.
As we’ve already experienced, technology has been instrumental as organizations and employees have transitioned to remote workforces. Not only will we continue to utilize technology for productivity, but we will also see emerging technologies continue to support safe and healthy work environments.
AI is already being utilized to develop advanced screening technologies able to detect COVID-19 infections, as well as other illnesses. Continued advancements in robotics will shape an automated future.
Advancements in textile manufacturing will see the advent of antibacterial fabrics. Such materials will have applications in personal protective equipment like masks and face covering, as well as furniture, carpets, and other office furnishings.
The impact of COVID-19 won’t be limited to office spaces but will have farther reaching implications for architectural design as a whole as we consider the future of public spaces more generally. Moving forward, we will see the introduction of more hands-free solutions, including sensor or voice-activated entrance ways, lighting, and faucets.
Air quality and adequate ventilation have already been proven to reduce the spread of airborne viruses in enclosed spaces. Building design going forward will focus on improving ventilation and airflow in new buildings while existing office and public spaces will be retrofitted with filtration systems like HEPA filters.
The transition back to the physical workplace will require flexibility and diligence as we adapt to changing requirements and government guidelines. Responsibility will fall on both organizations and employees to ensure we create supportive work environments that prioritize collective health and safety.