Office Space Redesign to Prepare for Covid-19
The lockdowns are opening up; we're getting back to work, slowly but surely. The battle isn't over, though; the virus is still here, it's still incredibly contagious, and a vaccine will probably take at least a year to develop, and then definitely at least a couple of years before it reaches everyone. What does this mean for offices and workspaces? After three decades of moving to open plan offices, rotating "hot desks" and the incredibly shrinking workstation, how do we incorporate a six-foot distance between every two people, and how do we combat a virus that can live on a solid surface for many hours? Is this the return of the cabin, or a permanent work-from-home future for everyone? Commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield has come out with a plan called the Six Feet Office. This article discusses others. Some of these suggestions are incredibly practical and yet very simple to implement - for example, everyone who walks in picks up a paper mat that she uses on her desk all day and then throws away, so there's minimal risk of spread through surfaces.
But social distancing is going to involve much more than just behavioral changes, it's going to require office layout changes. Here's what I think we're going to have to consider in the coming few months, either if a company is shifting to a new office space, or if not, then possibly redesigning its existing one: Sanitisation and housekeeping will, of course, see greater focus. Let's get this one out of the way. It's so necessary, it's a hygiene factor (heh.) Paper placemats, sanitizers, masks distribution, temperature scans, fumigation, cleaning every few hours - you're going to be seeing a combination of these things in every commercial building in the country in the next few weeks. In fact, shout out to our friends at Peakscale who've launched covidsafety.app - a logistics and office management app that can help automate safety and hygiene practices. Working from home will go up. This is one huge mindset change that is currently taking place. And it's taken hold in such a way that this headline that wouldn't even have registered two months ago is now making you go "Duh, that's so obvious!" Even among tech companies, acceptance of work from home was quite low; in most industries, it was non-existent. Over the last forty days though, plenty of companies in the service economy (and even the old guard, for administrative roles) have seen that it can be done. TCS is already taking concrete steps in this direction. Many more will follow. Combine this with the need to socially distance, and we're likely to see offices that rotate teams. A 200-person office might convert their setup to a 120-person setup that's spaced wider apart. Only 100-120 employees come in on a particular day; the rest work from home by rotation. Even pre-Covid, 2019-20 was a rough year for many industries; downsizing space, even at the add-on cost of an office layout redesign, is going to be the financially prudent option for many. And, yes, even though fixed seating is safer, we're going to see a lot more hot desking, to optimize available space. So junior employees will lose their family photos and personal space. Team Management will evolve. Consider how project teams work in call centers and IT services firms. You have team leads controlling a team of 10-20 people who are direct reports. If we have work-from-home being adopted, this could mean a scenario where 30-50% of the team comes in on a particular day and the others work from home. How does the whole team interact? One way is through Zoom/Webex/Microsoft Teams calls at pre-determined times. That's how the world is working today, from home. These are agenda-based (or at least, jolly well should be) - have a one-hour team call, discuss the agenda and get to work. After that, if you need something, send a mail or make a phone call directly to that person. We're willing to bet that another solution is going to become much more prevalent - the always-on video call, running on a TV screen, at the team leader's house and in the office. The other team members working from home are running the video feed on a window on their computer. We're in the process of setting up an always-on video conference system for our own office. We're going to encourage clients to set these up - so that top management, on the days that they're working from home, can still be in constant touch with some employees without having to constantly go in and out of calls with the same people. Is this an extreme form of surveillance? We don't actually think so. If everyone were in office, working together, your team lead/manager could always see you. Now he's still seeing the office on the days that he's at home. Square Footage Requirement is going to grow. The square footage requirement per employee is calculated by taking the total office space area - including all common areas, cafe, pantry, washroom, everything - and dividing by the number of employees. This typically ranges from 50 sq ft per person, so 30,000 square feet of carpet area for a 600-person office, to 100-odd square feet per person. As social distancing norms come into place, workstation sizes will have to grow. Call center-type setups, with 3x2 or 3.5x2 workstations are going to have the roughest time - either they get the office redesigned, or they keep a desk empty in between, in which case they've suddenly gone from 3x2 to 6x2 feet of workstation space per person. In the long run, workstations will grow in size, and they'll have larger partitions between them to further reduce the risk of infected droplets spreading through the air. Even beyond workstation space, offices will see redesigns to increase common area sizes. Corridors will get wider. Cafes will change too. Since we don't have eat-through masks yet, you can't enforce a mask policy in the cafeteria. So cafe tables will have to get bigger to give more space between chairs, and simultaneously, cafe timings will be staggered. So whether you accommodate the same employee strength in a larger office, or a reduced employee strength in the same space (while the rest work from home), the implication is the same - square footage required per employee is going to rise. Companies are going to factor that into their overall cost calculations, and even the "Should we-cowork-or-setup-our-own-office" discussion that we're certain every growing startup has been having in the last couple of years. Meetings rooms will get more focused on virtual meetings. The extensive business travel we've seen in the past is going to undergo massive reductions. This is one change that will outlast the virus - companies have seen that most meetings that currently happen in person don't actually need to. So a lot of senior management travel will face the dock. Board meetings had to always be held in person, as per SEBI rules. That's in temporary abeyance - for the time being, virtual board meetings are acceptable. We think this rule will be revoked altogether, and virtual board meetings will be allowed. Companies around the world are currently realizing that they can drastically slash their travel budgets without it affecting productivity (and let's face it, if your senior managers are flying halfway across the world and spending three days to attend a three-hour meeting, your productivity should actually go up with the savings in travel budget.) So board rooms/conference rooms/meeting rooms will now be designed with a technology-first mindset. The TV-plus-Tandberg model will give way to people bringing in their laptops, ipads and Surface tablets into meetings, interacting with people sitting in multiple locations. It's already been happening, of course - most things we're talking about here have been underway for a while - but be prepared to see a drastic increase in adoption in companies where you would earlier expect it the least. Common Areas will be rethought. Elevator occupancy will be artificially restricted, so prepare for longer wait times, or take the stairs instead. Office supply rooms, smoking areas, ATMs - users themselves will keep an eye out to not avoid being there at the same time as too many people. Some companies will make larger smoking areas. Others will just drop them altogether, forcing people to head out to the road downstairs for a smoke. The stairwell solution that's still so common in Indian buildings - head to the fire exit and light up a cigarette - might be out of fashion for a while as building inspections increase and commercial complexes get cracking on their safety practices. Signages everywhere. Reminders for social distancing. Boxes on the floor telling you where to stand. Even reminders to not shake hands with people, because that comes instinctively to us. Maybe even clockwise/counter-clockwise movement, with arrows on the floor? All I'm saying is, don't be surprised if you walk into Cyber City and see a lot more discipline being attempted. Filters in your HVAC systems. This is a tricky one. The weather in most of India isn't conducive to windows. Split Acs are very inconvenient, and the costs can pile up. Hence, our metros and tier-2s are full of glass-and-concrete centrally-air-conditioned buildings that are recirculating air. There is no practical alternative to central air conditioning, so we'll make the best of the hand we have, and use HEPA filters. Lots of them. Everywhere. Is it foolproof? We don't know. Will it drastically reduce the risk of infected water droplets circulating across the building? It seems so. (https://thewirecutter.com/blog/can-hepa-air-purifiers-capture-coronavirus/) Doors and Access control is in for an overhaul. Doors are high-contact surfaces. You can't get through without touching them. Our elbows *still* haven't been redesigned to work with knobs, which is some major evolutionary inefficiency, so we're going to have to find other solutions. Expect a lot more automatic doors. They're currently quite common for entrances and visitor areas in the office, but you're also going to see more of them in employee-focused areas. In other places, doors might disappear altogether where the partition between two spaces is not entirely necessary. Access control is also in for some changes. The fingerprint sensor is going to disappear almost immediately because of the obvious risks. Expect retina scanners and voice-activation to get cheaper and more available very soon. The check-in ipads where people enter their information before entering a large commercial building? We're not going to trust those anymore. And high time, too, because those are slow, the on-screen keyboards aren't optimised for entering your info quickly, and did I say that they're slow? In the short-term, the guards and registers will be back, except in the five-star commercial facilities where it'll be people in black suits holding ipads and doing the same thing. In the long run, let's see what solutions pop up. Voice activation that dials through to the person you're trying to meet, like in residential complexes in developed countries? Maybe. And finally...the much-improved home office. Not everyone has a good study table/office desk at home. I've heard all sorts of stories from my friends about furniture being repurposed for the sake of office work. Dining tables are the most common, as are the resultant backaches (those dining chairs aren't meant to be sat on for eight hours a day.) I've even seen an ironing board serving as a makeshift office desk for a friend who's in a rather crowded house right now. This is going to change. Anyone middle-management and upwards is going to invest in some good office furniture for the house, and make the space. Home office furniture is going to focus much more on productivity and comfort than ever before. So that's where we see things going, and very soon. We haven't discussed the truly revolutionary, path-breaking R&D that's been going on, because that's medium-to-long-term. These are changes we foresee in the very near future As an interiors company, we're gearing up too to provide seamless and painless design/office layout changes to help companies adjust to a post-Covid world. Drop me a line if you think this is something your company is debating about these days!