It’s hard to say how long the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us, which poses a challenge for architects. Right now, office workers demand spaces that can easily be adapted to social distancing guidelines. But office buildings last for decades, and if we partition off employees into desk-shield-ringed bubbles, those workspaces are going to become anachronisms sooner or later. How can we design an office that will work both now and in 10 or 20 years?
Working from home
During periods of lockdown, whole offices work remotely, and not everyone wants to go back. A recent survey showed that two-thirds of employees would be unhappy if they were expected to go back to in-person work full time. Eighty percent of those surveyed expect that they’ll continue to work from home at least three days a week. However, business leaders aren’t getting rid of offices. Rather than cutting costs by eliminating or reducing office space, managers are rearranging their offices to include fewer desks and more communal space, envisioning the office as a clubhouse where part-remote employees can socialize.
New offices aim to be easy to sanitize without feeling sterile. Smart materials with antimicrobial coating are a new trend in office furniture and fixtures, so it’s likely that the ubiquitous gray loop carpets and padded cubicles of past generations of offices are about to be left in the past. Another trend is improved ventilation with HVAC filters that pull viruses, bacteria and mold from the air. It’s likely that we’ll see more automatic doors and touchless light switches in the office of the future and more hand sanitizer stations around the place.
The outdoor office
It’s a proven fact that diseases spread less readily outdoors, so architects are trying to make outdoor workspaces practical. Perhaps in the office of the future, your desk will be in the middle of a rooftop garden. That’s a pleasant thought even without factoring in social distancing considerations.
When the first round of lockdowns ended last year, many managers tried to rearrange their offices for optimal social distancing only to find that some of their desks were bolted to the floor or integrated with the wall. A pandemic-friendly office would have movable furniture and barriers that can be rearranged for any set of hygiene protocols.
A workspace can be adapted to pandemic restrictions without being hostile to its employees. It’s clear that the effects of the pandemic are going to impact our future work life in many ways.