Does Covid-19 mean the end of open floor office?

By Sabarno De

As the world is steering through tough times, the manners of our living and working are being taken a second look at. Speaking principally about the workplace conventions, as an architect and designer, I personally do not believe that this is the complete end of the open floor office design. Humans have evolved and the nature and style of working has also evolved over the years, but this does not necessitate an overnight change in the design of the workspace.

But of course, other changes in design are foreseen in the near future. The way one is functioning in the office itself will be altered. Right from the office landscape to the behavioral aspects of the employees – each facet will be relooked at. Prior to the onset of the lockdown, something that we all deemed impossible or unnecessary became a reality overnight – a 100 percent ‘Work from Home’ culture.

All myths concerning it were busted and it became technically possible. Large IT companies such as the Tata Consultancy Services are believed to be moving 75% for their workforce to work from home by 2025, having realized the feasibility and technological viability of the same. Conversing with some of our clients, I realized that most sectors (apart from the manufacturing sector) such as the BFSI and IT will facilitate a work from home model even after the lockdown is lifted.

This is predicted to be the new norm. Currently, as per the government mandate, a 33% workforce is allowed in any workplace; once the lockdown is lifted maybe this could go up to 50% which will be the new normal for the next one to two years, as I see it. Having said that, a 50% capacity does not refer to 50% of the employees working from home and the other half working in the office. It simply means that flexible timings and smart scheduling will be put in place.

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Since, a lot of offices and sectors require in-person interaction and support to enable smooth operations; all employees will be present in the office but at varied timings. For simple understanding, a certain department or set of employees may have their work timings from 7 am to 11 am and the next set of people to be reporting post that. At the same time, not all employees may be expected to report to the office everyday but be available on a need basis, depending on the industry of work. In such cases, the employees shall work from home and report to the office once or twice a week.

When less is more
Operations and logistics for the same need to be worked out but this is anticipated to be the new normal. Maintaining a physical distance of 6 feet is going to be a crucial factor and will govern the design of new and existing office spaces. It is a common misconception that lesser density will require lesser floor area.

The density though will decrease, the floor area of an office space will not, since the regulation of a 6 feet distance will have to be maintained. Hence, even if an office is functioning with 50% staff, I do not see a significant change in the floor area due to the distancing norms.

Design of the office layouts will see alterations pertaining to the behavior and movement of people within the space. The aim will be to minimize overlapping of transition and movement aisles and lobbies. One solution could be planning different lobbies for entry and exit.

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New walls
There are going to be significant changes in the design of the workplace furniture. At least for the next one to two years, until a vaccine is developed for the coronavirus and herd immunity is set in, the design of our workspaces will see quite the transition – taller partitions between workstations as seen in earlier office designs, work desks of larger sizes and less occupancy, partitions that go up as compared to the current standards of height, etc. will be some of the new elements added to the existing and upcoming office spaces.

This does not mean that cubicles or workstations will be enclosed or opaque. Transparent, acrylic surfaces (for partitions) can be used to maintain a direct visual connection and a sense of openness. The definition of a meeting room will change completely. People may not prefer to sit in an enclosed space with a large group for a long time.

This will lead to discussions and meetings taking place in open areas. In all of these scenarios, technology plays an extremely, probably the most vital role. Sharing from personal experience, we are currently working on projects where our dialogue on the design concepts is taking place virtually. We are involved in discussions with people residing in various locations across the globe – New York, London, Bengaluru, Pune, etc. Under normal circumstances, the teams from these locations would have travelled to India, stayed here for seven to ten days, flown back and then visited again in a couple of months or so. However, presently, we are all able to connect digitally and work is progressing satisfactorily.

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Technology, as mentioned earlier has a key role to play. Along with desktops, other gadgets/tools such as headsets and cameras may need to be provided at every desk. Someone sitting in the office could connect visually and verbally (of course, virtually) with someone working from home. I do not see us going back to before the 90s with closed, hierarchical chambers and cabins, though our ways and spaces of work will definitely change, with protective and safety measures in place.

Sabarno De is Vertical Head, Corporate Interiors, Edifice Consultants Pvt. Ltd.


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