Although most office workers are currently working from home, it’s likely that the office will return in some shape or form as the pandemic subsides. Many workers don’t have suitable homeworking environments, and others are likely to miss the collaboration opportunities the office can provide. However, employees will need to trust employers to give them a safe, healthy, practical office to return to. What will this future office look like?
For a long time, with companies under pressure to maximize space and make the most of budgets, offices have attempted to squeeze more employees into ever-smaller spaces, while at the same time trying to create an open, collaborative atmosphere. After COVID, these office design priorities will have to change.
According to Janet Pogue McLaurin, Principal and Global Workplace Leader at architecture firm Gensler, “Densification will take a hiatus. We’ll shift to ‘How do we de-densify to create the physical distancing that we now need to have?’ First and foremost, people need to feel safe. We are looking at the entryways to buildings. How do they start to space apart? How do they navigate the lobby? Is there temperature sensing?”
Companies need to provide a new office environment that can keep workers safe and healthy as a priority. There are basic logistical considerations that will likely come into effect: wider office corridors with one-way foot traffic, as already implemented in supermarkets. Others include better air filtration in office aircon systems, touchless elevator controls and sensor-operated automatic doors.
Airplane interior company Aviointeriors has designed a concept featuring reversed seats and head-height screens to protect passengers, and this kind of thinking could be extended to office desks. Is the open-plan office layout doomed? Nearly 40% of workers told a UK survey that they are concerned about not being able to socially distance from colleagues when back at work.
The health imperative
Employers have always needed to comply with health and safety regulations in workplaces, but these are likely to be further tightened to meet new requirements. Post-COVID-19, employee health will be top priority for employers who want to get employees back to work in offices. Environmental factors like air quality, temperature regulation and lighting need to be given appropriate attention.
Smart building technologies like smart heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems could provide ways forward. Airports, hospitals and leisure facilities around the world have already deployed smart building solutions to help them better identify infections and reduce spread. For example, Narita Airport in Japan is using infrared cameras to measure the body temperatures of passengers and determine if they have a fever.
Hospitals have deployed washroom sensors to track whether staff are washing their hands for an appropriate length of time. Other technology solutions being used by these sectors include reprogramming building management systems (BMS) to manage indoor humidity levels to minimize the survival rate of viruses and white light disinfection LED technology. Building Automation and Control (BACS) tools might also extend to processing and analyzing data like occupancy patterns to help with social distancing.
How else can technology help?
If the COVID-19 pandemic had happened 10 or 15 years ago, it is likely that many more industries and companies would have been under threat of closure. Without digital tools like unified communications and collaboration (UC&C), secure VPNs, reliable broadband, videoconferencing and more to help them keep operating relatively normally, working from home would have been nearly impossible.
Research by Box reports that digital collaboration has grown by 142% during the pandemic, as remote workers have increasingly turned to videoconferencing, chat and messaging, cloud storage and sharing tools to do their jobs. These tools have been adopted not just by workers whose jobs are habitually mobile, but also by traditional backoffice staff like administrators and accountants.
This trend will continue as offices reopen, particularly given that not all employees will be able to return to their workplaces. Collaboration software will continue to be an essential business tool, and some companies might even use videoconferencing within the office building to avoid staff congregating too closely together in meeting rooms.
Another digital solution that could make reopening offices easier is using apps and wearables to track and stop the spread of COVID-19 among employees. It could work as an enterprise contact-tracing application that lets employers gather data from employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19, with a visual map of contacts and locations.
The new normal?
Screens between socially-distanced desks might be able to help. UK office screens supplier Panelscreens has reported an 86% month-on-month increase in revenues since the UK lockdown began, and order value increases of 426%. “The orders and enquiries we are getting are from large-scale businesses, who want quotes for multiple sites, where the volume of screens we’re being asked to quote on is over 5,000,” said a spokesperson.
The COVID-19 pandemic means enterprises will need to think hard about the kind of offices they want to provide for workers. When workers return to offices after the COVID-19 crisis eases, health and safety as well as productivity, will have to be front and center. New types of offices, attitudes and creative thinking will be needed.
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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.