Workspace Design post Covid-19
A study on emerging prospects by Zainab Mukadam.
Architect, Interior Designer & Workplace Strategist
Director-Design, Concept Consilio.
Disclaimer- Views discussed in this document are based on the writers’ personal research and thoughts. All data mentioned is based on reports, articles and information available in the public domain.
As we navigate through the corona crisis, with new developments unfolding every day, the role of architects, designers, building owners and organisation leaders has come to the forefront to envision and build the workspaces in a post corona world.
Whenever the time comes for the workforce to return to the workplace, it will become more crucial than ever for employers to instil a sense of safety and confidence in their employees. It is imperative for employers to create a road map for the health and well being of their employees and be in a state of preparedness for the same.
While evaluating data on Covid -19, which gets updated almost daily, it may be prudent for companies to consider multiple options for risk management in time-based formats.Office real estate has an average life span of approximately 5 years, and it may be wise to devise a strategy by evaluating existing and anticipated risks and keeping in mind solutions being developed to counter those risks.
Instead of applying a blanket solution to this, let us consider 3 hypothetical scenarios.
Scenario – 1
The short-term scenario till the end of 2020.
This is based on the premise that for the first time in human history, the entire medical, pharmaceutical and research fraternity is engaged in developing a cure, an antidote, or a vaccine for Covid-19. Never before has the research fraternity of the entire world been as united in their efforts as they are today. All research has been fast tracked and is being conducted on a war footing. Hence this scenario is by far the most optimistic and is based on reports that suggest the possibility of a vaccine being available in a few months.
” Scientists at the University of Oxford are promising a super fast vaccine against the novel coronavirus and say it will be available by September. Prof. Sarah Gilbert, said she and her team were confident that the ChAdOx1 vaccine can work against the coronavirus.”
– India today,
April 18, 2020
Scenario – 2
This is the mid term prospect spanning out till the end of next year, 2021.
This is based on adaptation of protocols such as Convalescent Plasma Therapy and creating herd immunity. The concept of this therapy is based on the principle that the blood of a covid-19 patient who has recovered contains antibodies, with the specific ability of fighting the novel corona virus. The antibodies from the recovered patient, once ingested into somebody under treatment, will begin targeting and fighting the novel corona virus in this patient. This is akin to passive immunisation and is a preventative measure but not a treatment.
Let us consider possible approaches for the interim period of scenarios 1 and 2, till such a vaccine is discovered or herd immunity is developed. The measures stated below would therefore be temporary ones, aimed at protecting the employees and avoiding any possible spread of the disease and need to be evaluated periodically.
We will have to embrace technology on every level of life and work.Technology can help us get things done with minimal human intervention. Basic automation and human-bot collaboration can improve process efficiency and positively aid in continuing to work, despite the pandemic.
Work from home
Organisations can allow a work from home policy as much as possible.Teams can also be called in to work on alternate days.
Screening of temperature of employees at entry points.
Reconsider workstation density
Allowing for staggered seating in the workstations and avoiding employees seated facing each other. We may need to forego the sit to stand workstation concepts, to avoid any possible spread on the sitting employee due to the standing one.
Reconsider unassigned desks and everyone to have dedicated work desks instead, thus minimising the sharing of spaces.
This is required at every entry and exit point.Consider creating “sanitization tunnels” at entrance points to the building or campus.For prototypes, consider these-
Companies to provide sanitizers and masks to all employees.The office can be treated almost like an ICU, creating a need for a change of clothes and shoes at entry points.
Cleanliness standards should be maximised with hourly sanitization rituals especially at high traffic areas and shared spaces like lift lobbies and toilets.
Leveraging technology and developing applications to make smart phones an ally in creating zero contact spaces with the ability of calling and accessing a lift from one’s smart phone, sliding doors based on hand gestures and facial recognition technology or proximity cards for attendance.
Virtual collaboration only
Leveraging technology to make collaborations as virtual as possible.
Various apps and smart devices can be used in order to maintain the mandatory 6 feet distance between employees.Companies like Ford have already invested in buzzing arm bands and are using these to create effective social distancing. The bands buzz when one’s 6 feet radius is violated.
Eating habits and hygiene
Should food be served in cafeterias at all?Can we rely on employees packing their own lunches from home or ordering through delivery services? But rules will have to be figured on how food would reach the employees in their workplace with minimalhuman contact.Organisations need to reconsider the cafeteria spaces and provide smaller eating zones with staggered timings so one can respect social distancing measures.
Testing of employees
Organisations may need to take ownership and responsibility of their employee’s health, and invest in outsourcing to private labs, to get testing and screening done for all their employees on monthly basis.This may be the most effective and powerful step that organisations can take for their employees’ safety.
While the above measures may be used in the interim period, but what happens if no antidote is found or if the community immunisation drive is unsuccessful.
Scenario – 3
This is the most pessimistic of all eventualities and entails the “new normal” where we would need to focus on a changed world and the creation of a “new post Pandemic workplace”.
In addition to all the measures taken in Scenario 1 and 2, we may need to re-evaluate and invest in more permanent solutions of infrastructure as well as technology.Planning such a place may be radically different from how we plan offices today.
The emphasis so far has been on bringing people together and the focus may now be on keeping people apart.
Organisations will have to invest in this substantially and technology is what will be at the crux of bringing people together with minimal contact and getting things done. Cognitive, augmented reality and Artificial Intelligence for human-free processes are inevitable in the near future.
Office design will have to be extremely modular and flexible.Office spaces should be able to adapt quickly to changing health environments and should have the ability to expand or to retreat, quickly with minimum effort.
Furniture that is movable and so far, was used to bring people together may now be used to create distance between them.
Restriction on number of people
Number of lifts and access design will have to be relooked at, with new norms on their number as well as occupancy.
There will be a drastic change in the materiality of all offices with a preference to smooth surfaces that are easy to sanitize and wipe off. Materials with low porosity, hard flooring like stone, tiles or luxury vinyl tile may be preferred.Vast studies need to be conducted on the life of the virus on different surfaces, and selections can be based on these.Metal components in workstations, pedestals, air conditioning ducts may have to be replaced with more resistant options.So far there have been conflicting reports on this, and the subject needs more research and documentation.
Associated issues like acoustics due to extensive usage of hard surfaces will need to be addressed in more innovative ways through new materials or technology.
Research and development of new materials
New materials such as “sharklet” that mimic “sharkskin” will be in demand, sharkskin is known to be resistant to fouling organisms and microbes like algae.
This may well be the end of collaboration and shared spaces in the office. Say goodbye to the community work desk.Remote working practices will be encouraged and supplemented with superior technology aimed at bringing people together, but not physically.
We may need to rethink the entire HVAC systems with an eye to avoid recirculating used air in contained spaces. Measures and machines may have to be in place to exhaust used air, while pumping in fresh air. Recycling of the air may be another measure.
Upgraded easy to sanitize equipment
We may have to consider personal laptops or desktops for each individual. Keyboards which are known to be homes to millions of microbes may well be replaced with smooth, easy to clean versions.
Special care will need to be given to toilets in offices trying to make them as hygienic and as contact less as possible with health faucets activated with hand gestures and bidets with rotating toilet seat covers to replace conventional ones.
Evolution of new zones like laundromats and self quarantine zones
We could be looking at creation of new special amenities like a laundromat in the office, if dress changes to sanitized wear are required in the office.Sick rooms may be replaced with self quarantine rooms.
New methods for sanitization and hygiene
Offices will need very strong timely sanitization protocols and may need to use technology like UV rays to combat the Covid virus. New developments have shown UV light to be a fast and an effective method for sanitization.
The scenario- 3 of the post Covid world entails an entire recalibration of office design.
Though one cannot predict and can only speculate on what the post Covid world will be like, however it would be prudent to keep an open mind with preparedness for possible measures and actions, which can be quickly taken, based on situations, as they evolve.