Back to work: how COVID-19 will impact the office

The modern office design focuses on light and space: hot desks, collaborative breakout areas and meeting pods. Post COVID-19, everything is set to change. Space is still vital but for different reasons. What can we expect from the office as we emerge from the pandemic?

It’s fair to say that the office will never be the same again. As the world tries to get back to something resembling normality, it could be that many employees will have gotten used to working from home and want to continue doing so. Others will relish the chance to get away from the kitchen table and mix with colleagues again. As workers do return, most offices will need to be redesigned for social distancing.

The new status quo?

A recent UK survey found that only 13% of 1,500 workers polled “want to go back to pre-pandemic ways of working, with most people saying they would prefer to spend a maximum of three days in the office.” Over half said they believe it would increase their loyalty to their employer as a result. So attitudes may well have changed, and employers may have no choice but to comply given the health imperatives imposed by COVID-19.

What might come next?

In recent years, offices were primarily designed and built around the co-working model: an open-plan space that maximized the potential for collaboration and communication between workers. That concept is probably now outdated post-COVID-19. “How we think about the workplace will be the biggest change,” says Darren Comber, Chief Executive of Collaborative International Design Practice at Scott Brownrigg. “After this, are companies really going to want to put their entire team in one place, where they’re closely mingling with other businesses?”

Instead of being designed to encourage interaction, offices will now need to do the opposite. Social distancing is a priority: ventilation, one-way office corridors and “de-densification” will be to the fore. Workers must feel safe, and offices may take their cue from schools and restaurants: more spacing between desks or tables and rigid plastic screens between individuals to offer protection.

What role will technologies play?

Office layouts will need to leverage technology if they are to provide a safe and productive environment for workers to return to. For instance, throughout Asia, many businesses are taking people’s temperatures before allowing them to enter, so this is something offices should consider. If thermal imaging cameras identify an employee with a fever, the individual should be sent home to isolate, and perhaps the employer will need to carry out contact tracing.

In line with the COVID-19-enforced zero-touch economy, offices will need to investigate ways to use technology to change the environment. Developments could include:

  1. Zero-touch office environments. Employers should seek to minimize physical contact with surfaces throughout the office. Sensor-based door and elevator controls or light switches can operate without people needing to touch them. There could also be a role for voice or motion-activated technology and movement tracking apps here. Aspects of the office we’ve taken for granted will have to change: touching buttons on doors and in elevators is now inadvisable, so you could now use technology to power voice-controlled lifts and remotely operated printers as well as more sensors and facial-recognition software throughout the building.
  2. Connected HVAC. Office HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems can potentially spread a virus across offices, as high-speed air flows from one infected person to another, as demonstrated during the SARS outbreak of 2004. Smart building technology that controls HVAC more efficiently can help with COVID-19, with technology managing things like air filtration and purification as well as irradiation and thermal sterilization able to circulate air more safely. Connected HVAC systems can also incorporate ionic purifiers, ozone generators and other devices for cleaning the air in the office.
  3. Thermal imaging. As companies prepare for large numbers of people returning to offices, thermal imaging solutions can help identify any potential virus carriers. Thermal imaging already exists but has recently been adapted to be a fever-screening solution that can detect, on arrival, employees or visitors who might be infected with COVID-19 and prevent them from entering the office. U.S. company Flir, a specialist in thermal imaging technology, reported a massive 700% increase in demand for its infrared cameras recently, which it says can “detect changes in skin temperature as slight as 0.01 degrees Celsius.”
  4. Wi-Fi analytics. Wi-Fi can now be adapted to track and monitor people in the office to prevent hotspots where employees might gather and risk virus transmission. It works by tracking new devices that enter a space when they connect to Wi-Fi and records where they are, which enables the employer to better manage human movements.
  5. Collaboration tools. People have gotten used to collaborating differently under the enforced work-from-home period, but unified communications and collaboration (UC&C) tools will still have a role as employees return to the office. Recent research by Box found that digital collaboration grew by 142% during the pandemic, with remote workers using videoconferencing, chat and messaging, cloud storage and sharing tools to do their jobs and keep in touch with colleagues. As employees return to offices, they will still need to socially distance. Collaboration and messaging tools will replace marching into a meeting room for workshops, coffee and donuts. Companies have already touted desktop videoconferencing as an alternative to workers congregating too closely together in meeting rooms. If you don’t already have Microsoft Teams or another collaboration suite, you might want to think about getting it soon.

The new normal?

Offices are going to be offices but not as you previously knew them. In the same way that COVID-19 has transformed supermarkets and shops, office managers will need to reprioritize when they open up more fully. Rather than coffee and collaboration, attention will turn to health and safety and maximum use of available space with due deference to social distancing.

The new office will need to become a compelling, frictionless experience for employees and guests as we move forward. The COVID-19 pandemic means we will need to think creatively about what we want our offices to look like and how well they will enable workers. And that’s the crux: if you want your employees to be encouraged to return to the office, you need to make it an attractive prospect. Research from Australia recently showed that 41% of full-time jobs and 35% of part-time jobs could be performed from home. As much as some of your workers might relish the thought of human interaction once again, it needs to be in a safe, secure, trustworthy environment.

Interactive Office from Orange

Facilities managers will be interested in the Orange Interactive Office to manage overall efficiency of their offices and other buildings without sacrificing the comfort of employees. The hypervisor pulls in data from all the different building management systems deployed across a global estate. The hypervisor predictive maintenance tool will forecast when the aircon filters need replacing and what the heating requirement will be based on forecasted external temperatures. The predictive modeling can also analyze people movement within offices and suggest the impact of changing layouts to accommodate social distancing. Building access for staff and visitors can also be administered through the hypervisor. To learn more, watch this video:

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Our COVID-19 webinar series explores issues around the return to work. Listen on-demand to:

Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.