What do you miss the most about going to an office everyday? For some, it’s the comfort of the routine, the camaraderie with colleagues, the coffee breaks and pantry conversations. For others, it’s nothing at all! Whatever end of that spectrum you’re on, you’ll have one thing in common - the fact that offices are never going to be the same again.

Office design in the near future will have to work around the Covid19 pandemic, at least for the next 18-24 months until there is an acceptable vaccine. This means that every possible office space will have to be reconfigured to minimize infection. 

Does this spell the end of office space as we know it? Not really, because, among other reasons, working from home isn't a ‘one size fits all' kind of solution. Factors like a sense of loss of community or resources that an office space provides, or even the unavoidable distractions that arise from multiple family members under the same roof, cannot be ignored. 

According to the U.S. Work From Home Survey 2020 by Gensler, an online anonymous survey of 2,300+ U.S. workers across 10 different industries, only 12% of respondents wanted to continue to work from home. So clearly a majority does want to return to the office which means that offices have to adapt to the post-pandemic scenario, which in turn means major changes in office design. 

The same Gensler survey notes that employees, too, expect to return to a very different office environment - one that prioritizes their health and safety above all else. Quite simply, this translates to “more space, less desk sharing, and increased support for mobile and virtual work.” 

One of the many casualties of this pandemic is definitely the old open-plan office where employees sat side by side, sharing everything from snacks to break rooms. Going forward, offices are going to look, and feel, a lot different from before, and here’s how. 

De-densifying workspaces will be the first aim of office design, going forward.

Space Matters

While some companies are choosing to wait and watch before making structural changes to their office spaces, others are going ahead with smaller, adaptable changes to start with. In both cases, one major change that is being incorporated is the de-densification of offices. This means rotating schedules to operate at about 30% of the present workforce, staggered timings to ensure there isn’t any crowding when people are commuting to the office and maybe even giving up on the office pantry. That last one is going to hurt - no more coffee breaks? - but considering how push doors, coffeepots, refrigerators and drawer handles tend to concentrate germs, it’s going to be the first to go.
Some organizations may even have to consider having many smaller offices rather than one large office space, in a bid to make it easier to manage all these new norms. Other changes will include opaque partitions, more cubicle-style spaces and the focus on individual workspaces rather than collaborative ones. 

Contactless Is Key

If there’s one word you’re going to be hearing a lot when it comes to office design in the future, it’s definitely going to be ‘contactless’. Consider it the new ‘minimalism’; like the contactless office designed by Zaha Hadid Architects for the Bee’Ah headquarters in Sharjah, UAE, where ‘contactless pathways’ ensure that doorways are enabled with motion sensors and facial recognition and lifts can be summoned via smartphone. Or the reconfiguring of office floors to ensure a one-way flow to minimize transmission, by getting people to only walk in a clockwise direction - no bumping into anyone here! 

A render of the contactless pathways in Bee’Ah headquarters in Sharjah, UAE. Office designed by Zaha Hadid Architects.

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Breathing Better

Considering that a virus spreads through airflow, air circulation is another aspect that will see a lot of focus going forward, but we can all agree this one’s been long overdue. Even before the pandemic, it wasn’t long before one employee coming in to work with the sniffles resulted in a mass spread of the common cold or flu. 

Other than upgrading to HEPA filters and improving HVAC maintenance, another major change in office design is going to be actively seeking to include sources of fresh air, ventilation and sunlight - the best natural options to reduce risk. This means less glass boxes and more open windows, which is all for the better considering the amount of Vitamin D we need to increase the body’s immunity levels. The changes will possibly also be on a policy level where staying home at the slightest indication of illness will become more important than ever, so no more powering through a cold or a mild flu just to clock in those hours at work. 

‘Six Feet Offices’?

Pioneering the offices of the future is real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield whose Amsterdam office is a prototype of their ‘6 Feet Office Project’ that incorporates the six feet social distancing aspect into a regular office. With large carpets to mark out six feet distances, signs to indicate where to stand in elevators and which direction to walk inside the office, and disposable paper workpads, it’s definitely a start to rethinking the way we work. 

The Six Feet Office Project by Cushman & Wakefield in Amsterdam.

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One big design inspiration for offices in a post-pandemic world comes from a rather unusual place - hospitals. There’s a lot that offices will be borrowing from the very epicentre of the pandemic to create a set of best practices to keep employees safe. This includes more sinks for sanitizing and handwashing, thermal scanners, mask stations, antimicrobial materials for desks and chairs and other scenarios we possibly imagined only in science fiction, until now. 

The Main Mantra - Flexibility

While large firms like Twitter and Facebook have publicly declared that all employees can work from home henceforth, we can’t assume that every organization will follow suit (unfortunately). While some jobs may require people to be present in office physically, some employees may also be looking forward to returning to office spaces. The only viable solution will be for firms to adopt a flexible approach where working remotely is a valid option, because while there will be people itching to get back to office, some may need more time, like employees with limited childcare options. 

Design changes can be comparatively easy to implement, but the biggest challenge for organizations in the post-corona world will be how to manage the human need to commune with the obvious health requirements of social distancing. Until we find a vaccine, the new normal will have to prioritize hygiene over all else - even the need for community and social connection.

If you’re looking to upgrade your office design to implement the new social distancing norms and other best practices, check out the 3D space planning services offered by BureauOne. We’ll help you visualize how your workplace can be transformed into a safe space for your employees, and help implement those changes with our office furniture rental. 

Providing employees with a sense of safety will be the most important step for most employers - and it surely begins with creating a workspace that’s designed to prioritize the employee and their health above anything else. And until we get there, how about we use the time to figure out a replacement for that other office staple - the handshake. Any ideas?