While the workspace was already on a journey of change, Covid-19 means some office design trends are likely to change again or even disappear.
There has been a lot of discussion about the future of the office in recent years. Before Covid-19, there were plenty of debates around office layouts and which version yielded the best collaboration, the most productivity and the happiest workforce.
The growth of the open-plan office in particular was heralded as a revolution for boosting collaboration. Today, there are very few offices you’ll walk into that don’t have some degree of open-plan design.
But there’s been pushback on the open-plan office for the last number of years. A quick search of open-plan offices will bring up many articles and think pieces questioning how effective they really are at bringing the collaboration and productivity they promise.
A 2018 Harvard Business School study suggested that open-plan offices actually reduce face-to-face interaction by about 70pc and increase email and messaging by roughly 50pc, which seems to disprove the idea that the open office encourages communication and collaboration.
However, while many people said that the open office is dead, getting rid of such a concept is easier said than done, especially when you consider the cost of redesigning office spaces already in existence. But now that Covid-19 has sent a large proportion of the global workforce home, attention has once again turned to the concept of the future office. Is this the final push that will dismantle the popularity of the open-plan workspace?
The cost of change
What once might have been a slow and natural change in office design trends will likely be completely taken over by the health and safety measures that need to be put in place due to Covid-19.
In a fantastic animated format, the BBC visual and data journalism team depicted what it might look like for someone going to work five years from now, when we may not be in the midst of a pandemic any more but when many legacies of protection and distancing remain in office life.
The graphics show a day in the life of Leila, a fictional office worker who mostly works from home in the year 2025. When she does go into the office, times are staggered to reduce the number of people in the space. Her office building uses a lot of touchless technology, wider doors to allow for social distancing and clear plastic screens to partition employees’ desks. It’s a fascinating visual of a hypothetical future office.
Some of these suggested changes are not unlikely, with a report from Ibec suggesting that 61pc of Irish businesses plan to change their physical workplace in the next three years because of Covid-19.
However, most of these changes will depend on the size of each building and the needs of each company, and the cost of ‘pandemic-proofing’ could go into the millions. But these costs are more about making current open-plan offices safer, rather than investing in massive remodels to put permanent walls back up.
The death of hot desks and collaborative spaces?
While open-plan offices probably won’t be gone completely, the practice of hotdesking is likely to disappear due to Covid-19. Hotdesking and co-working arrived as a way to save on office space while increasing employee numbers. It’s the solution to not having enough desks for every single person, especially in scenarios where employees are working remotely or on a different site for some of their working week, leaving a vacant desk for someone else.
Covid-19 has essentially forced a large proportion of the global office workforce to adapt to full remote working. While a recent study in Ireland found the vast majority of respondents would like a hybrid model in the future of working both at home and in the office, which would normally be ideal for hotdesking, the safety measures needed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 are the very thing that may get rid of the practice.
In Ireland, the Government’s Return to Work Safety Protocol advises employers to “modify use of hotdesks to ensure that these are made available to identified staff and have appropriate cleaning materials in place for workers to clean the area before using”.
In the UK, government advice to employers says: “Workstations should be assigned to an individual and not shared.” It goes on to say that where sharing is necessary, it should be done between as few people as possible.
The idea that regular hotdesking could become a thing of the past will be welcome to some employees. Depending on the size of your office and how frequently people come in and out of the space, employees can often be left working at completely different desks every day of the week.
This practice can have a lot of negative side effects and, in a time when many of us worry about the risk of infection, getting a designated workspace will likely be welcomed. However, the challenge of not having enough desks may no longer be an issue with the new hybrid model, which could put a significant portion of staff at home.
While no one is crying out for the loss of sharing desks, the loss of collaborative spaces could prove more difficult. In the interest of health and safety, the future office will need to ensure that there are safe, open spaces in which colleagues can still meet and collaborate without concern.
Depending on the size of the office and the number of employees companies have, employers might choose to take out entire sections of desks that were once occupied by full-time workers and create more open-plan collaboration and meeting areas, while the staff members who once worked at those desks now operate remotely.
With so many workers calling for a hybrid model with a blend of remote working and in-office work interaction, it seems natural that offices will become more about working together and less about working in silos. Therefore, the design of future offices should reflect that.
What about the remote workforce?
As we focus on what the physical office building may look like in the future and how Covid-19 has affected it, it’s important not to ignore that, for many workers, their present and future office space is their home.
Unfortunately, it’s even harder to standardise a home office environment than the various office buildings that will be reconfigured in the coming months and years.
But with many major tech companies offering staff long-term remote working, including a stipend to kit out their home office, it’s essential that other employers follow this way of thinking by figuring out how to ensure their remote employees have the best ‘office space’ they can.
Unfortunately, challenges around cramped living conditions, multiple people in one house and a lack of separation between work areas and home spaces mean ideas and concepts around the office of the future will take a lot more than plastic screens and hand-sanitising stations for remote workers.