This is what a return to the office will be like when the lockdown lifts

Right now, offices around the UK are sitting empty while most of us work from home. But when lockdown lifts and workplaces are told they can start bringing employees back, they will return to a very strange environment.

Francesca Perry www.wired.co.uk

Government guidelines shared with businesses and unions this weekend gave a glimpse of what is yet to come. Hot desking will be curtailed and employees will be kept two meters away from each other with sticky tape on the floor; lifts will remain half empty and face-to-face meetings will be banned. Working hours will be staggered to reduce the amount of people in the office at any given time, and office canteens will be kept shut.

After coronavirus, the open-plan office format has suddenly become more risky than revolutionary; especially in light of previous studies which suggest the format results in a 62 per cent increase in sick leave. A recent survey from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) reported that 39 per cent of workers are concerned about not being able to socially distance from colleagues when back at work. Now that barriers have become synonymous with protection from infection, could we see a return of the cubicle-style office – or are there other ways to achieve workplace safety?

The open-plan layout was designed for collaboration, not isolation. Rising to prominence in the early 2000s and spurred on by young tech firms like Google, the open office signalled an end to the ‘cubicle farm’ era. Though some companies still use cubicle working, most abandoned it; according to a 2019 Savills survey, 73 per cent of UK workers use an open-plan office. And over the years, the open-plan office has become denser. According to the British Council of Offices (BCO), the average space per workstation in the UK has dropped from 11.8 square metres in 2008 to 9.6 square metres in 2018, meaning employee proximity has only increased.

Although the government has yet to confirm when a post-coronavirus return to the office might happen, companies and workplaces have started strategising. WeWork produced a slick video and announcement outlining “what the future of work looks like as we face the new realities of a post Covid-19 world”. The co-working provider’s measures include increased cleaning, PPE for members, touch-free soap dispensers, behavioural and wayfinding signage, professional distancing standards and limitation of capacity in its lounges, working nooks and meeting rooms – but no cubicles.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has said employees will not return to offices until June at the earliest, and even then will do so in a staggered way. He also suggested the pandemic creates “an opportunity to reimagine how we work,” though Google has not announced details on what this entails.

Ken Cooper, Bloomberg LP’s global head of HR, says the majority of his company’s global workforce – including more than 95 per cent of UK-based employees – has been working from home since mid-March. “In London, we have introduced non-contact infrared temperature screening and are planning to adopt a gradual, phased approach to office return based on guidance from local authorities and our own risk assessment procedures.” Key considerations in Bloomberg’s operational strategy, Cooper explains, include re-configuring office movement, implementing social distancing across office floors and enhanced cleaning procedures.

Perkins + Will, a global architectural firm, recently announced its strategy for safer workplaces post-Covid, including a phased return to work, office capacity limits and distancing signage. “Instead of transitioning to a cubicle style of working, we will be using simple and cost-effective measures such as replanning our existing open-plan desks and re-organising circulation routes to allow for social distancing,” explains Linzi Cassels, principal and design director at its London studio. Some desks will be removed to reduce density and circulation routes will be redesigned to allow for one-way directional movement. “Adaptability will be key, with the ability for spaces to flex to accommodate future waves of pandemic,” says Cassels, “but this should be achievable through creative, yet uncomplicated, office design solutions.”

Global commercial real estate services firm Cushman and Wakefield has introduced the “6 Feet Office” concept to help its clients prepare for a return to the office that maintains physical distancing. Is this costly? “Clients are implementing different levels [of it],” says Nicola Gillen, head of total workplace EMEA. “Most are working with signage and graphics which is the cheapest approach with least intervention. Some are installing screens. Some are moving furniture out which involves labour costs and storage. Fewer are changing physical environments, which is the most costly.”

In fact, changes need not be physical at all. Using generative algorithms, global design firm Gensler has developed a digital tool for post-Covid workplace occupancy planning. Named ReRun, it uses the existing layout of a workplace to identify an optimal plan for assigning seating in order to accommodate safe physical distancing.

In April, the British Council of Offices released a briefing note on office design and operation after Covid-19. Its suggestions include automatic doors, reception screens, reconfigured meeting rooms, enhanced fresh air and touch-free devices. “Touchless devices do require investment,” explains Richard Kauntze, chief executive of BCO. “However, many of the immediate measures our paper suggests can be delivered for relatively little cost. Good hygiene practices are vitally important, however these can be enforced without significant cost – they’re more a question of effort and discipline.”

Office density is perhaps the biggest challenge for businesses returning to work. As fewer people are allowed to be in an office at any one time, companies will need to deploy rotas, explains Rosie Haslem, director at London-based design and research studio Spacelab, which has shaped workplaces for clients such as Virgin and Bauer Media. “In the shorter term for the return to work, we will need to ensure people can socially distance. This can be achieved through both management of people – such as flexible hours and rotas for how many people come into the office each day – and management of space, including reconfiguration or removal of desks and the closure of certain communal spaces. These things are low-cost ways of getting people back into work, quickly. Investment in technology to assist in the management of people flow and space occupancy, and to enable things to be ‘contactless’ may indeed follow – but arguably this is just an acceleration of pre-existing proptech trends.”

Regardless of what companies’ strategies are, we will not see a dramatic return to the cubicle, says corporate real estate consultant Anthony Slumbers, “at least not by anyone that wants a productive, effective workplace. The smart companies will use the Covid-19 tragedy to update and improve their workplaces. The worst companies will build cubicles.”

Some companies, however, have been buying in partitions and desk dividers – though none so far are announcing it. UK firm Panelscreens, which supplies office screens and partitions, has seen a 86 per cent month-on-month increase in revenue after the UK lockdown began. What’s more, its MOM average order value increased by 426 per cent. “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,” a representative explains. “These are not a cheap purchase on the volumes we are dealing with.”

The major change will be companies admitting that it is possible for their workforce to work remotely , says Matthew Blain, principle at design firm Hassell, which has designed offices for GSK and Sky. Preliminary findings from Spacelab show a large majority of workers (59 per cent) want to work from home at least two days per week in future. When asked their views on the most important future design considerations for the office, respondents prioritised the provision of technology that would enable “work anywhere” collaboration.

“Covid-19 has enforced a global working from home experiment which has accelerated long-term underlying trends in several areas,” says Gillen. “One of these is rethinking how and where we work and the idea that work has to be tied to an office. Many businesses are now fundamentally asking ‘Why do we go to the office?’ and therefore ‘What is the office for?’ It doesn’t make much sense for people or the planet for everyone to travel into city centres in order to work alone, two metres away from each other, at desks or in cubicles, every single day of the working week.

“The office should be a place we choose to come to for activities that are better done in person such as building relationships, learning, socialising, personal conversations and serendipitous interaction. That trend was already underway and we see it accelerating.”