So… we headed into March listening to news reports from China about the wave of COVID-19, little did we know that only a few weeks later we too would be engulfed by the wave of this pandemic. Now, here we are mid-April and at last we are starting to see a slow down in cases and of course the daily sad news of the number of deaths. We have all indeed, in some way or another, made sacrifices whether it be on the front-line NHS and care workers, delivery drivers and refuse workers for example. Many of us have had to work from home where possible, home school our children and sacrificed the time we all took for granted with our families and friends and colleagues. A short-term struggle for most with undoubtedly some long-term benefits. One thing is for sure, these are unprecedented times and sadly it may well happen again.
As the statistics begin to improve our thoughts turn to ‘What Now?’. What will our world look like after this virus slows and indeed what will be normal? It is fair to assume that ‘normal has changed’ and as a commercial business, so has our workplace or space as we think it’s better named. But how will offices change their working environments to accommodate social distancing and provide a safe working environment to staff?
Let’s take location first. Will people still travel to their place of work or will they work from home? How will the office be occupied? Is the traditional 9-5 work pattern a thing of the past? Will flexible working be implemented or will shift patterns come back into effect? What will be the correct number of staff in an office at any given time? Where will employees take breaks and have lunch? All to be considered.
The one thing we as a commercial furniture dealer cannot do is increase the size of a client’s office space. If social distancing is implemented into workspace, which we believe will be a necessity, furniture and associated items will become crucial to changing the landscape of that office.
Our industry has literally spent years helping companies change the way they work, throughout the decades. Change – remember this point!
So, lets rewind the clock to the 80’s where offices floorplates were a mixture of cellular offices and in open areas, cubical style desks – a sea of them. This was known as an American style of working, every employee had their own denoted space, safe guarded with screens to aid with privacy, acoustics and a general need for marking their own territory. Computers were clunky and did not move with ease, so mobile working was not an option.
Fast forward to the 90’s when technology stepped up a gear where just 0.4% of the global population used the internet, todays figure is over 60% . Everything was still static and flexible/agile working didn’t really exist. This trend continued into the 1990s as offices were still often made up of cubicles, but these started to get lower so that co-workers could see one another. The arrival of the Aeron chair designed by Herman Miller placed emphasis on comfort, as staff increasingly sought out comfortable solutions to support their posture.
As soon as the 2000s arrived, cubicles got replaced with pods and desks opened up to become workstations albeit 1800mm in size and sometimes beyond. Communal spaces and shared desks started to emerge, as the arrival of laptops and better mobile phones encouraged movement within offices.
Cubicles were replaced with ‘pod’-style desks, often in wavy or more unconventional styles. Desks now had computers with faster Internet connection and better storage capabilities. Mobiles got smaller and more accessible and people now had laptops when they were out of the office.
2010’s when it comes to office spaces, the sky truly was the limit. Office furniture is now inspired by our homes – with comfort and creativity taking the lead. Lightweight laptops and increased flexibility in the workplace have resulted in radical changes in office layout. Whereas cable management solutions were a key consideration for furniture designers of previous decades, wireless technology allowed us to branch out more than ever before. Staff are working for longer and the workplace is becoming increasingly multi-generational, meaning that a well-designed office is now crucial for attracting the best talent to a company.
So here we are -Agile working, collaboration, focus areas, sharing ideas, wellness, biophilic design, environment of the office and its impact, acoustics, integration of technology, smart storage solutions, privacy, open plan – the list goes on. We have now reached a point where we are striving to tick all these boxes and to get to this point, we had to CHANGE. People, processes, business capabilities and the like all changed as the above topics were introduced. And now to accommodate social distancing we must CHANGE again. One point to note is that businesses are constantly changing, and change is what we as individuals create. Businesses take time to change however people need time to change also. But how do we implement these changes we are now faced with, without undoing all the good we have done.
Short term many companies will have to work with the space they have; leases not expiring soon, financial difficulties from the aftermath of lockdown etc. Let’s consider this the pre vaccine phase.
Long term companies may seek to increase their floorplate size to ensure social distancing can be done to maintain office numbers as they stand. Not all companies can implement flexible or shift working.
We all know what this is now! Some may have adapted better than others. This way of working may become vital to ensuring numbers of employees in offices are kept at acceptable levels throughout the working week. Home working could effectively fall under the remit of facilities managers and steps may need to be taken to formulate home working kits for such employees. What would this kit look like and how will it support wellness for the employee? What proportion of the business can work from home and how does that impact on the culture and communication throughout the business.
"Organisations are already working through what works and what doesn’t – and are starting to understand the need to respect the diversity of their employees’ home lives. We have all now experienced the domestic reality of a colleague on a team videoconference session, suddenly being crashed by one of the children, requesting that mum or dad needs to do something super urgent. Or the dog suddenly deciding the postman wasn’t quite right. Or indeed the reality that the ironing board and the kitchen stool had become the preferred work set up for the day and accepting that all of this is perfectly ok Flexible working was being described as the new normal more than twelve months ago, recognised as changing how many of us run our homes and our workdays, and involving an increasing relying on internet tech to help ensure our continued productivity as employees. No matter what we do, nor what level we’re at within our organisations, migrating from being deskbound during office hours to being highly effective wherever and whenever we choose is becoming more commonplace."
Orangebox Creative Director Gerard Taylor. ‘Smart Working Post January 2020’
Let’s however focus on the short term for now and the working office. The government gradually lifts the lockdown status and companies open their doors and employees return to work. But to what, how will companies be required to change?
According to a recent webinar from Workspace they are predicting 2 different possible senarios:
In relation to point 2) this is further backed up by a recent document produced by Neil Usher from GoSpace. He states that at present offices are one quarter to a half under occupied at any given time and this is not just since COVID-19 – now the fraction is far greater.
He suggests that employees should spend the right amount of time together, not all their time together and that the place of work, i.e the office, would be utilised in a very different way. He suggested that this would be more readily used as a social, collaborative, and agile space, where employees meet to share ideas and meet. If there are less static office workers at desks, then it could be said that these types of interactions could be achieved easier whilst meeting social distancing guidelines.
Below is an occupier model shown by Neil Usher of the potential for smaller office spaces and the incorporation of what he calls ‘Smart Scheduling’. Offices could still utilise all of the spaces we have grown to thrive on in the office such as workspace, agile, collaboration, meeting and social spaces, however social distancing can be implemented as fewer employees would be present at the one time.
The scheduling of meetings, days at the office and working hours would allow for ‘Smart Scheduling’
"For critical departments and workers who remain in the office or are soon heading back, we’re seeing utilization of the entire, now largely vacant, workplace being used to accommodate physical distancing. While maintaining the existing layout of desks and furniture, seating can be assigned to accommodate the latest recommendations for safe physical distancing. Using generative algorithms, Gensler has developed a physical distancing tool, ReRun™ — a data-driven process for post-COVID workplace occupancy planning. Using the existing layout of a workplace, ReRun can quickly generate many scenarios and identify the most optimized plan for a variety of physical distancing conditions, whether an organization has hundreds or thousands of seats. As workplaces begin to phase in more employees, ReRun can continue to generate scenarios that increase in density to help inform organizational return planning strategies. This high-level approach of colour coding a floor plan can be quickly implemented across a portfolio for immediate physical distancing planning and future scenarios."
Cindy Coleman, Don Ricker, and Jane Stull. Gensler research and insights, 'Rethink density to prioritize physical distancing'
But what if companies cannot implement with high level colour coding system and staff cannot work from home? If the statistics show that offices are under occupied, it could be suggested that companies work with what furniture and infrastructure they have and make better or indeed different use to ensure safe social distancing. Let us not forget that economically the UK as with other countries will take some time to recover with cash flow being paramount. Expenditure on buildings and their interiors could be significant to ensure a safe working environment and for some this may be difficult.
We have seen years of downsizing of the desk sizes and the most common type being bench desk – the overriding benefit to these systems is that they are adaptable – now may be the time to adapt to increase desk sizes to maintain team working with a safe distance between.
Screens are historically used to enhance acoustics and indeed denote users’ space, however post COVID-19 it has been suggested by manufacturers such as Frem that these could play a much bigger part in the protection for employee’s health. There has been much debate recently between a fabric or indeed acrylic screen with regards to the lifetime of a virus on these surfaces. Many suppliers and medical authorities have suggested that the virus would last significantly longer on plastics as opposed to fabrics. Fabric suppliers have highlighted the anti-microbial treatment of these fabrics, however it has yet to be proven that these treatments are not in fact harmful to the individual or the environment. There is a wellness element to this subject too. Neil Usher states there is less requirement for a meeting room if employees can easily communicate at their workspace. The introduction of fabric screens could be detrimental to this communication and result in meeting space requirement increasing.
However for those keen to make significant changes in the landscape and design of the office layout, solutions like the following could be of interest: – different desk formations, S-shaped, Herman Miller Atlas, Ocee Design Den cubical desks, Brunner, and Mobili all offering ‘different solutions’.
"While using every other desk may cut your capacity in half or more, activating conference rooms, focus rooms, learning labs, and break out spaces as dedicated seating areas can increase the headcount of staff in the office while maintaining physical distancing. As workers return to the office, these spaces will again be used to enhance collaboration in a safe way. Clearly identifying which seats respect physical distancing and removing excess seating will help users follow guidelines."
Breakout spaces being utilised in different ways with a max occupancy being advised. High benches and group tables occupancy are often dictated to by the number of seats available and indeed quantity of power outlets, if both are reduced it can be said that the occupancy level at such settings may in fact decrease. Numbers requiring these spaces would be relative to occupier numbers.
Meeting spaces being used for focus working or indeed smaller numbers to ensure social distancing is adhered to. If the numbers of home working are in proportion far greater numbers of virtual meeting are likely to take place thus meaning less reliance on meeting spaces.
Storage elements are also for consideration as Andy McBain from Royal bank of Scotland Group referred to in a recent BCO webinar, many staff who are largely reliant on paperwork have had to adjust significantly. Readily available files and paperwork are not accessible in the office filing cabinets at the office at present. During the last few weeks as many staff are working from home and have learnt to work without having access to hard copy files.
We could also see the use of storage to denote walkways providing safe distances between members of staff and one-way systems brought into operation. Presented in the correct manor this could be both aesthetically pleasing and functional without major financial implications.
Personal storage and lockers could see the introduction of key less and touchless systems similar to those already on the market from Your Workspace and Spacestor for example- such solutions would provide access through technology like mobile devices.
So, what could or should the workspace look like post COVID-19?
We wanted to give you some food for thought, some ideas and design led solutions of furniture which you may be able to implement in your business. Our aim is to help you meet the guidelines that we have yet to see published in full, help you retain staff and provide a safe and welcoming environment for all employees whether it be office working, home working or indeed ‘Smart Scheduling’ type working.
Today saw the publication from the Scottish Government entitled ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19); framework for decision making. Which reflected on the ‘ongoing period of lockdown and outlines how we will determine the steps required to constrain the spread of the virus while minimising overall harm to health, society and the economy.’
Whilst this document may not have offer definitive answers what the next stages would be for certain, there were significant suggestions made, reliant of a host of different factors.
It reads :
"As a result of the current lockdown, there are early signs the virus has been slowed – but it has not been eradicated. We will need people in Scotland to continue to live their lives in ways that minimise the spread of the virus. So even as we lift some of the more restrictive measures, better hand hygiene and appropriate physical distancing will need to remain in place, at home, on the streets and in the workplace. The single most important measure to help us understand how fast the virus is spreading and the degree to which it is under control is the "reproduction number" or "R". The reproduction number is a measure of the contagiousness or transmissibility of a virus – in other words, the number of cases each infected person passes the virus on to. To contain the virus we must keep the R number below 1, and this means minimising the risk of spreading the virus at every turn. When R is over 1, exponential growth returns."
Scottish Government. Coronavirus (COVID-19)
With a specific look at the business world, back to how we were simply is not possible and if we are to continue to slow the spread of the virus and prepare for a future where potentially this could happen once again, we must change and protect us all for the future.
"Easing restrictions will not mean returning to how things were before the virus. Physical distancing, hand hygiene, and other critical behaviours will be essential in each sector. We will engage with experts in each sector to understand the practical consequences, for example, of what physical distancing would mean for schools and education, transport, business, and recreation. The capacity of business and industry to innovate to find different ways to function will be critical here. We will support businesses and other organisations in this redesign so they can be places where physical distancing can operate. Our health and safety professional communities will play a critical role. We will need to consider compliance with physical distancing advice in the workplace and in other settings. We have already begun the conversation on how to respond, re-set, restart and recover with our business community and our trade unions. Businesses are already learning about safe working with physical distancing in place, showing how effectively they can adapt and change their business models."
Scottish Government. Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Finally as we simply cant say when the restrictions will be relaxed and indeed how, we at Tsunami Axis have taken the opportunity to research our varied current ways of working and how we could help companies realise ways to embrace new social distancing measures and beyond.
"The big upside of these torrid times is that we are experimenting with and adopting new work modes faster than ever before. There is a collective understanding that if we’re to overcome the economic challenges ahead, collaboration is essential, and we must also develop both a new lightness of touch and a more profound trust in each other. The best way to move forward into the new reality – as individuals, as organisations and as a society – is to work collaboratively, reimagining our future Smartworking workplace together."
Orangebox Creative Director Gerard Taylor
We hope you and your families and friends are safe and well and we look forward to being in touch again soon, in whatever format we will adopt going forward. Our teams are working constantly to ensure our clients have the most up to date information from our internal teams and operationally also. Our sales teams are reachable through phone, email, Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and many more methods. Feel free to get in touch with us, we are here to help. TANorth@tsunami-axis.co.uk