A change of plan – the post COVID-19 workspace

August 03rd, 2020

Paul Tattum

The open plan office no longer serves the needs of the post Covid-19 workforce and the impact on the design of existing offices, co-working spaces and new spaces, is undoubtedly changing.   

Coupled with the realisation that remote working is not only effective, but in certain circumstances has led to increases in productivity, it seems flexible working is here to stay. It’s true – long-loved open plan office spaces provided high densities and economies of scale, but the need to manage the spread of Covid-19 whilst re-starting the economy, means the walls are going up.   

Whatever form these walls take, they are needed.  Isolated spaces, controlled environments and a new material palette are all key considerations when remodelling or designing workspaces that will entice existing workers back to the office and help attract new ones, whilst managing the safety risks associated with Covd-19. So how as developers, architects, designers and engineers, do you address these new challenges? 

Controlled environments 

Image of an office rooftop

The need for rooms within rooms, increased circulation space to accommodate one-way systems and separate entrances and exits to buildings, all impact the design of current office spaces and unfortunately the costs of new spaces. 

More than ever, monitoring the office environment will be important to ensure safety. This will involve the repurposing of some existing sensors, and the introduction of additional proximity sensors to monitor occupancy numbers and provide efficient use of more individually controlled spaces.

Roofscapes or common external space is likely to attract a premium for the safety it provides, and its opportunity to connect with nature, a new feature of the enforced remote working social experiment, brought on by Covid-19.  These areas will provide an ideal opportunity to add space to existing buildings, but will be challenged by the need to make outdoor space useable for more than a short period of time.  Designs are needed that maintain the current advantages of the open environment, whilst maintaining the comfort levels needed to focus on work, such as keeping warm and staying dry.

New materials

As we know, the use of Perspex and hand sanitizer have been necessary and will continue, but longer-term design solutions need to be considered.  Designing out common touch points will help to minimise the risk of spreading Covid-19 and yet unknown viruses, with automated doors, taps and toilets and the use of antimicrobial surfaces incorporated in common areas such as meeting rooms, kitchens and bicycle storage.   

Copper, untreated woods, Tea Tree oils, cork and hops all have antibacterial properties that could be effective long-term solutions. Thought to shorten the life of the Covid-19 virus and other viruses, these materials are increasingly seen as cost effective with the benefit of providing a comforting place to be.

“The surfaces we touch in our daily routine can be a vector of transmission,” says Larrouy-Maumus in a recent BBC article.

Indeed, the virus that causes Covid-19 – Sars-CoV-2 – can persist on cardboard for up to 24 hours, while on plastic and stainless steel it can remain active for up to three days. Some bacteria – including E. Coli and MRSA – can survive for several months on inanimate surfaces, while infectious yeasts can last for weeks.

By simply changing the texture of the surfaces we use, or coating them with substances that kill bacteria and viruses more quickly, some scientists hope it may be possible to defeat infectious organisms before they even get into our bodies. Larrouy-Maumus is betting on copper alloys. The ions in copper alloys are both antiviral and antibacterial, able to kill over 99.9% of bacteria within two hours. Copper is even more effective than silver, which requires moisture to activate its antimicrobial properties.

While it wouldn’t be feasible to coat all surfaces with copper, Larrouy-Maumus believes using the metal in alloys on hotspots such as lift buttons and door handles could help to reduce contamination and the resulting spread of microbes. 

Copper surfaces can also be treated with lasers to create a rugged texture that increases the surface area – and, by extension, the number of bacteria it can kill. Researchers at Purdue University, in Indiana, who developed the technique found it could kill even highly concentrated strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in just a couple of hours. Such treatments could not only be useful for door handles, but could also help to make medical implants such as hip replacements less likely to cause infection.

A new routine

Whilst ways of getting to the office may well have changed for many, upon arriving separate entrances, exits and one-way corridors are becoming the norm to prevent pausing – and of course encourage social distancing.  The relocation of space to increase circulation and rooms within rooms, is already driving a “team-on/team-off” approach to manage the limited space, with the Marketing meeting on a Tuesday and IT holding their weekly workshop on a Friday.

Design, brainstorming or start-up phases will require more face to face time, after which teams will be increasingly allowed to determine their own rhythm in between these events, with the nature and size of space needed eschewed to collaboration rather than introspective focus working. Whilst walking or running meetings may not become the norm, the frequency of outdoor meetings is certainly set to increase.

Productivity and mental health

Simple tasks like how we make a coffee or where we eat our lunch, all now need solutions and whilst the re-introduction of the tea trolley, albeit in automated form is possibly a welcome change, Covid-19 has brought the role of the office as status symbol; to provide a place for building relationships and allowing the serendipitous spread of opportunities through the “collision coefficient” is called into question.

The role of the head office is under review with some suggesting that essential meetings, team events and presentations will become its core functions, with the workforce carrying out day-to-day tasks largely remotely, for the foreseeable. There’s no doubt that this will impact the productivity and mental health of those using home spaces in now very different ways. And whilst there are many positives, it’s become apparent that the benefits of an enforced move to homeworking are unevenly distributed – split between those located outside of city centres with sufficient space and access to a garden, and that those in city centres but with insufficient space to work remotely.

Could there then, be opportunities to repurpose spaces no longer needed, to fill the gaps between presentations and collaboration at the office “hub” and solo working from home?  Santander have developed the Work Café concept, transforming no longer needed banks into an environment that provides meeting rooms, a coffee shop and a place to work, whilst providing Banking and Mortgage advice. Could this be a model for un-used suburban spaces?

The future

The future of work is likely to be a blended one, with a large proportion of people whose roles allow them, working primarily from home for 3-4 days per week, and going into the office 1-2 days to stay connected with colleagues.

There is evidence however, of a divide between lower income roles who are more likely to be in the office fulfilling the face to face contact work such as operational maintenance, office management and cleaning, and the middle to higher paid roles who are more likely to work at home the most.  The result is the lower income roles spending the most time in the office; middle income roles working from home whilst higher management roles will still need to spend time in the office, fulfilling the networking and collaboration function.

It is increasingly likely that the office as we knew it will transition from the open, high density space to a central hub, with new materials and more individual and external spaces to accommodate networking and project start-up and groups with a regular flow of teams migrating from their remote locations.

Recent modelling looking at the effect such a move to working from home will have on where people live and where people work has found that jobs will move towards the centre, legally located at central city locations, with remote workers living on the periphery of cities and in rural areas. This will have a big effect on property prices, with property prices towards the centre of the city likely to go down and property prices at the periphery, moving upwards.

It’s clear defining our future workspaces is now, more than ever, linked to clearly understanding and mapping the changing needs of the workforce, and the spaces needed to support this.  Ultimately, understanding the core requirements of the end user lies at the heart of delivering amazing spaces.

Ready to create your next amazing space? Future Projects can help. Let’s talk.