Office design is about the marriage of commercial advancement and human needs. It's about privacy and collaboration – the ability to work alone and focus, yet still to have the support and companionship of colleagues. And it’s about health, safety, and hygiene – the rights of employees to work in a clean, safe environment, with access to lavatories, first-aid, and drinking water.
These aspects of office design are as relevant as ever, but as we move into 2021, they’re going to be shaped by the world’s recent experience of a viral pandemic.
Many companies have been operating successfully throughout all stages of lockdown by means of a WFH (work from home) regime. A trend for home-working was already creeping into the schedule of many UK businesses, with just over 5% of people in employment working mainly in their own home in 2019 – compared to 4.3% in 2015. But in 2019, only around 30% of workers had any experience at all of working from home. [Source: Office for National Statistics]
In 2020, the slowly shifting pattern of office life was given a mighty nudge by the COVID-19 pandemic. What began as damage control seems to be the path we wanted to take anyway. Home work is becoming a new normal.
Despite a general approval of WFH, we’re very far from the point of ditching the office completely. In fact, companies are putting time and effort and money into adapting their workplaces to the new requirements. Maybe the office will be a central station for meetings, collaboration, and training – where social and professional bonds are kept secure.
The concept of hygiene, as we knew it before COVID-19, doesn’t really cover all the bases when it comes to the modern workplace. Transmitted via water vapour from one respiratory system to another, the COVID-19 virus has excellent chances of survival and growth wherever people are close together.
Visual signage - arrows, worded instructions, and demarcations - is a familiar feature of hospital buildings. During 2020, this type of signage has also become commonplace in shops, banks, and walkways.
A good start to social distancing is a one-way system, which makes it easier for people to avoid face-to-face proximity. A one-way system might include separate entrances and exits, although not all existing spaces are equipped for this set-up. Wide walkways and multiple entrances might be a major consideration in the design of new office buildings.
Any space saved by fewer staff in the office will inevitably be used up in reorganisation for social distancing. In 2021 and beyond, there’ll be a need for meeting spaces that have capacity for several people, at least two metres apart. Tight huddles and leaning over a colleague’s shoulder are already a thing of the past.
Office design in 2021 could well be based on meeting spaces rather than numerous individual workstations. Working independently at home for some of the time and coming into the office for collaboration and staff meetings might be the way much of the UK’s workforce will be working.
Touchless sensing and gesture control are types of touch-free technology that respond to the stimulus of movement. Automatic doors, toilet flushes, taps, and air-conditioning units are already familiar to most of us. Other sensor-operated appliances include coffee machines, lifts, lights, and water dispensers.
The essence of touch-free technology is that we don’t have to touch shared surfaces, and the use of smartphones in a touch-free environment is of tremendous value. An internet connection provides not only a means of activating a door, for example, but also a reliable level of security. Where authorisation is required, an identifiable smartphone is valid ID.
Handwashing has taken on a new level of significance. Health and Safety at Work guidelines have previously told us to wash our hands: after using the toilet or handling refuse; after using cleaning products; after a break; before and after touching food; and after sneezing, coughing, or blowing our nose. Handwashing is now a high priority in any public (or private) environment.
Office design in 2021 will undoubtedly incorporate handwashing facilities, and for many companies these facilities will operate by touch-free technology.
In certain offices, there’s already a requirement for all staff to take their own temperature on arrival, and this simple procedure might become more widespread in 2021.
In a move to avoid using public transport, many people have been cycling or walking to work. This might lead to a demand for showering facilities at work.
The gases we breathe out are loaded with water vapour. If a person is infected with COVID-19, the virus will be cadging a ride in the vapour, ready to be breathed in by somebody else. Diluting the indoor atmosphere with fresh air reduces the chances of catching the virus through inhaling.
Open windows are a great source of fresh air. But sometimes the weather is prohibitive. Now, more than ever, a good ventilation system is an essential office appliance.
Porous materials, such as wood, stone, unglazed ceramic, linen, and cotton are not as easily cleaned and sanitised as non-porous materials – for example, metal, marble, varnished wood, and vinyl. Natural textiles and untreated wood probably won’t feature much in the offices of 2021.
Heavy-duty carpets with moisture-barrier backing will withstand a rigorous cleaning regime, and a carpet that’s regularly shampooed will last longer if it’s made of solution-dyed synthetic fabric. Synthetic textiles such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic, are polymers, created in a liquid state. If pigment is added to the molten polymer before it’s extruded through the spinneret, the colour will be fully integrated into the material, and it won’t fade.
COVID-19 really has upset the status quo of businesses and communities. One reassuring aspect of the pandemic, however, is that we’re all in this together. Technology, scientific research, government guidelines, social awareness, and a co-operative mindset in business relationships will all contribute to a smooth transgression from one normal to another.