Back to work: how to adapt your office design to the Covid-19 responsibilities

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the idea of the physical office space, both temporarily and potentially irrevocably, as employees continue to work remotely in adherence with the government’s lockdown measures. COVID-19 will have implications for office design, especially open-plan offices, and will surely come under increased scrutiny in the immediate short term, as governments contemplate relaxing lockdown measures, and allowing workers back to the office.

Ben Grave, Director at Dthree Studio, highlights COVID-19’s impact on office design and the learnings from Dthree Studio’s interactions with clients over the past six weeks:

What have we learned?

This period has been a steep learning curve for many companies, regardless of the sector in which they operate. At Dthree, our tightly knit team and work culture have helped us operate efficiently during this challenging time. Prior to the pandemic, we were already serving several clients virtually – those unable to be physically present at meetings or on-site, either due to scheduling issues or geographical barriers – meaning that our technology set-up was already up-to-date. We are well-versed in online versions of site walks, presentations and sign off meetings. The enhanced use of technology due to COVID-19 has enabled us to leverage our existing set-up and continue collaborating closely on ongoing projects. The importance of a strong culture and flexible approach to working is something also borne out in conversation with clients and how they are responding to the crisis. As a result, we have been experimenting with new ideas, such as online workspace consultancy sessions. While embracing the flexibility, clients have also become more accepting of the limitations that all of us are facing and are, across the board, showing high levels of empathy. These challenges have made our team rethink design strategies and use a more evolved approached in serving our clients. The willingness of clients to try out new ideas and concepts is very refreshing.

What is the impact on ongoing client work?

In our ongoing projects, several of our clients have been pleasantly surprised at the extent our work can be achieved remotely thanks to the tools available to us. In particular, Dthree is still able to survey and in some instances, carry out work without the presence of staff on-site. This can have a significant impact on our clients and actually save them financially with staff not having to work out of hours (nights and weekends), thus, leading to lower project completion costs. The design lead-in, except for physically standing on-site, is still, essentially, a standard service. Despite many of our services continuing as normal, we are fully respecting government guidelines and draw up a risk register for every project, no matter how big or small, to clearly indicate problematic elements of a fit-out under current conditions.

COVID-19 is already having an impact on office design requests, with one client specifically requesting that we install desk dividers in their 120-person office. In the short term, we expect concerns surrounding social distancing to have the most immediate impact on office design and client requests. From a sectoral standpoint, design companies willing to ‘socially distance’ themselves from conventional norms of what is considered best-practice design will adapt and overcome current challenges.

What’s next?

In the short term, for ongoing on-site projects and a few lining up to go-to-site at the moment, we are making clients aware that while adhering to responsible and ethical on-site practices in keeping with the government’s social distancing norms, there could be a potential increase in construction time. Our constant communication with clients has been reassuring for them in these challenging times. The COVID-19 pandemic has also provided an opportunity for business owners to reassess their office design strategy, the desired size of their space, as well as staff density levels. As a result, in the short term, small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will likely revert to serviced offices if they have reduced staffing or are in the process of searching for new offices and relocating.

Over the medium term, supply chains will begin to return to ‘normal’, causing the price of building materials to flatten. Smaller businesses within the supply chain, however, will face severe financial difficulties. We anticipate that bigger businesses will pick up where they left off, with property acquisitions resuming.

With specific reference to office design, numerous things are likely to change as a result of the pandemic, including a reverse of the recent trend towards open-plan offices. Security barriers on entry to buildings will change, as will multi-let building receptions and the entire ‘experience’ of staff and guests ‘arriving’ at a building, and making their way up to the offices above. Future offices may have more signs to indicate standing spots in communal areas such as receptions, lift lobbies and lifts themselves. We believe numerous things will change as a result of the pandemic – way finding and circulation is one key aspect with simple solutions such as increased circulation routes and direction suggestions to minimise cross over in heavily used areas such as WCs, breakout areas and receptions. Increased divisions between workspaces, a design element that we thought would be a thing of the past, is likely to be reintroduced, especially in areas of close proximity or high usage turnover such as hot desks. The biggest changes are likely to be around culture, communication and interaction. One aspect that this pandemic has taught us is how much we miss face-to-face engagement – with friends, with family and with colleagues – how we retain interaction, the culture, the essence of a business that isn’t tangible. This will be the biggest challenge to office design.

Clients are also requesting offices to now be designed to minimise personal contact with one another as well as with the building itself. This would likely involve technological change where doors would open automatically via facial recognition, and where coffee and tea could be ordered via smartphone, for example. These technologies were already available, but were historically seen as a premium or were perceived to be unnecessary. As a result of the current circumstances, we are now utilising not only new technologies, but existing ones to facilitate a safer, lower contact environment.

Inclusivity will also be a more prominent consideration for office design. We also expect a return to the previous norm of individual offices and a reduction in breakout rooms. The office space could also be used by many as an external meeting point for third-party meetings. As several firms have now adapted to the technology needs of employees, we believe that they may become more accepting of remote working. This could be reflected in reductions in the size of new office requirements and fit-outs. Commuting will also become less desirable as people may not want to return to heavily urbanized areas, causing firms to spread their wings away from the major cities towards less developed areas and towns.

Despite the challenges that we face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dthree still believes that offices will remain an essential part of our working lives in the future. An office space generates a sense of belonging and community amongst co-workers. In an efficiently designed office, reaching out to co-workers is easier, resulting in simple queries being resolved faster. Besides, working from home can be challenging for many with space or family constraints. An office also helps to create a divide mentally between home and work. Though it remains to be seen if the pandemic will result in significant changes to the idea and need of the office, the ‘new normal’ of working remotely has made us rethink future design of the physical office space. Regardless of the changes that COVID-19 will bring, Dthree remains committed to keeping our staff safe and healthy during this time, as well as continuing to serve our client needs to the best of our ability. Get in contact if you would like to discuss any aspect of the design of your working space.