Office Design After COVID-19: Six Degrees of Separation

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Office Design After COVID-19: Six Degrees of Separation

It’s early to say if the New Normal is here to stay. However, life and business will not return to old normal any time soon, so the faster we adapt to changes, the better—and safer.

Across the globe, we witness different stages of the pandemic and different approaches in fighting it. One thing is common for all: The world is now run by the importance of staying six feet apart. The post-COVID-19 state of normality requires implementing social distancing rules, wherever possible, and that includes the workspace too.

Is it possible to get your workplace and your workforce ready to thrive again in the “6-feet economy” of the post-COVID-19 era? As many nations start developing cautious strategies to relax lockdowns, the main questions revolve about the topic of restarting businesses and reviving the economy. Eventually, we will all return to work. It’s time to think about our position in the distanced society, visualise the best ways to adapt and find out how to make the rules work for us, instead of against us.

Implementing the COVID-19 New Normal 

Setting up refreshed, pandemic-proof offices means implementing a series of short-term fixes, together with new working patterns and long-term design upgrades. Whether the small adaptation does the trick, or you face a necessity for an entirely new fit-out, the right way is to put hygiene as a base of workspace planning. Some vital aspects of modern work environments will have to change if employees are to return to their desks safely.

A concise, in-depth analysis of the current working conditions is the first step to perform. It’s crucial to notice all weak spots of the existing layout in terms of health safety, in order to understand and explore opportunities for proper improvement. Next, develop a practical concept in line with new, straightforward, workable agreements and rules that put the safety on top. It’s good to think in advance and conduct training for employees who will advise, optimise, and operationally ensure a functional and safe facility environment by helping everyone else adapt easily.

New office interior design layouts must comply with the 6-feet distance rule not just in setting independent, adapted and fully equipped workspaces but also developing unique routing for each office. The real challenge lies in preserving the quality of communication and office culture while making traffic flows completely safe.

The list of rules for setting up a pandemic-proof workplace design includes:

  • A minimum distance of 6 feet between employees
  • Reduced capacity with rotating shifts (usually required)
  • Digital improvement
  • Suitable furnishing
  • Protective screens/plexiglass barriers
  • Bacteria-resistant materials
  • Sanitising stations along every route
  • Flexible, versatile layouts

These are guidelines for developing some key concepts in reinventing COVID-safe business environments. Adapting office interiors must work in line with action protocols that ensure all employers, workers and visitors maintain the highest levels of hygiene. It also includes visible directions for safe circulation through the facilities and proper implementation of technology, like body temperature controls and sensors that reduce tactile contact in common areas such as elevators or toilets.

Distributed Offices, Rotating Days and Physical Barriers

As this is the first time our generation has experienced a global pandemic, it’s only reasonable to expect many employees to be hypersensitive about the perspective of getting sick at work, together with the rising concern of employers in terms of their own potential -and real- liability.

It is not surprising to hear advocating for termination of the open-plan workplace concepts and return to the small, private offices. In terms of plain distancing, it makes much sense. However, the whole business culture had changed significantly since the era of private office spaces, and such return would bring only limited benefits, with a risk of deterioration, to modern principles of work style and communication.

Paradoxically, in the era of imperative distancing, the sense of community becomes more craved and more beneficial than ever. Instead of bringing up more solitude and closing the walls, we are obliged as human beings to be inventive and creative. For a start, if physical barriers are a necessity—the visual ones are not. 

Furthermore, open spaces provide a variety of opportunities for creative interior design and adaptable layouts without the necessity for major interventions.

Many experts suggest finding a solution which involves a combination of short-term fixes, aimed at boosting worker confidence and sense of safety; together with reducing the number of staff in the office with rotating shifts and implementations of remote alternatives, and some long-term design upgrades and modifications.

The ‘sneeze guard’ is one of simple, easy to implement, low-cost, high-impact solutions. It’s a plexiglass panel fitted between desks to improve isolation. While it represents a separation between colleagues as a physical barrier which makes people feel safer, it still allows full visual contact and doesn’t stand in the way of communication.

Open space layout permits setting up more extensive corridors, with one-way direction tracking. In passages no wider than two meters, it’s advisable to establish some sort of waiting areas, checkpoints with excellent visibility, where one can notice and wait for the other person to pass. Visual signals with arrows indicating directions of traffic flow around the office can reduce the risk of any jams or unwanted physical interactions.

Finding the fastest way from point A to point B and identifying the crucial points in a straightforward manner will not only improve safety but also help with maintaining better levels of productivity in challenging conditions.

Occupation Density, Creative Office Design Layouts, Flexible Furnishing

From the average 11m2 per worker, we now talk about reducing occupation density to at least 60%, to allow circulation while maintaining minimum safety distance. That is necessary for the most adequate optimising of the available office floor.

With more flexible furniture, you can configure the area according to the particular needs. Combined with mobile separating elements, it will allow the creation of smart and highly functional layouts. Reducing the number of chairs, with the relocation of auxiliary furniture, leaves more space for traffic and increases safety levels.

The same approach needs to be applied to common areas, like cafeterias or break rooms, where workers go to use a moment of pause. In the relaxing regions and spaces where socialising is a must, contact is almost inevitable. Solutions include: reducing the area capacity to 4 persons within every 10m2, or to 50% overall—whichever secures the proper distance between available seats; placing protective screens, providing biodegradable disposable covers or elements, and marking directions for circulation.

One of the reasonable approaches in adapting a workspace for post-COVID business life is choosing materials robust enough to withstand heavy cleaning using caustic products. Any highly porous or sensitive surfaces like natural oiled wood should be avoided. It is recommended to use solution-dyed carpets with moisture-barrier backing, the kind able to withstand heavy cleaning with aggressive agents. Anywhere possible, pick the bacteria-resistant materials as those can reduce the need for constant sterilisation.

Some of the more durable materials can be costlier than their typical alternatives. However, choosing the wrong kind of surfaces can end up costing even more if those have to be replaced every couple of months.

Air filtration systems present another level of challenge. One of the possible solutions is ultraviolet light. A heavy UV cleaning can be scheduled after hours, when everyone has gone home, to make sure that the air is perfectly clean for the next day.

Technology to the Rescue

Another concept to provide a safer environment is the ‘contactless office’ – something expected to become widespread among companies which can afford it.

It can start by incorporating voice activation to open doors and continue with touchless elevator and lighting controls. Some office bathrooms already have touchless sinks and soap dispensers. It can be brought further by adding sensors to toilet stall doors, and enabling passing through doorways or flushing the toilet with a hand wave. All self-service in office kitchens or coffee rooms can be replaced with sensor automation. Employees could avoid the need to press communal buttons by using their smartphones to send a command to anything from the elevator to the staff coffee machine. 

Conference rooms can be fitted out with voice-activated technologies. Alternatively, all activities that demand the simultaneous presence of a large group of people, like business meetings, can be executed in a fully remote manner. Videoconferencing can be done even within the office to avoid the physical sharing of a conference room.

Accepting the New Normal 

Resuming life and returning to the office is vital for reopening our economies. The transformation we are all experiencing revealed that a process of social change has only just begun. The new way of life blurs the boundaries and requires a design which perfectly combines balanced aesthetics and functionality.

The central aspect of characterising new workspaces should be the capacity to adapt to a time of constant change. Modern office designs, executed with the best interest of the people who inhabit them in mind, with flexible furniture and technological innovations, can become something we do not accept because we have to, but because we want. If new norms are applied smartly and creatively, many aspects of the “new normal” might prove worth keeping in the foreseeable future.

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