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Designing a post-pandemic workplace

We’ve been keeping ourselves busy by asking leading industry figures to offer their opinions of where we’re likely to find ourselves once we begin to live and work in a post-COVID world. This week is the turn of a selection of architects and designers.

13/05/2020 7 min read
This article continues our series of opinions and insights on how the current pandemic will affect the commercial interiors (and wider) world. 
Ben Lonsdale, Lead Workplace Strategist, Oktra

We asked our teams and clients what they missed most about their office: connection, collaboration and culture were the response. The same survey also revealed that people don’t feel safe leaving their homes to commute to a workplace full of colleagues. Balancing risk management with user experience (UX) is going to be a crucial part of our eventual return to work. User journey mapping and UX assessment could become integral parts of the risk assessment process, helping to provide an environment that inspires while delivering confidence from a safety perspective.

This transition will bring uncertainty, and there is no perfect solution just yet. Clients need to think about creating a system that can evolve by adopting an iterative design approach that develops, implements and analyses solutions over time as the situation becomes clearer and moves through the transitional phase into the (new) normal. As for the new role of the office, the initial conversation will be about efficiency – how much space do we really need? But that conversation will evolve to be about creating an environment that has a distinct purpose and delivers a clear set of performance outcomes linked to measurable results.

Paul Dare, Head of Design, Morgan Lovell

Something I’ve noticed since being on lockdown is that it is difficult to replace having everyone in one physical environment and that the psychological impact of leaving the house and commuting is important to help set your mind for work. However, upon returning to the workplace and reclaiming that psychological benefit, I think we are going to see an immediate effect.

Hygiene and social distancing will be massive when we get back into the workplace. I imagine we may even see wash stations become integrated into office design, and obviously we don’t know how far it will go, but this will play a massive part. If you’re seen not to be taking the measures to keep people safe and healthy, then people won’t feel comfortable going back to work.

In terms of distancing, clients are already looking into this to see how they can adapt and use their spaces differently. It’s worth mentioning though that employers shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking they need less space – they are simply using it differently to make it safer.

Finally, flexibility and being agile will change at least in the beginning. Even though we have spent a long time encouraging people to use multiple spaces in the office for different tasks, we will inevitably need to contain people at their desks initially.

Linzi Cassels, Principal, Design Director, London studio of Perkins and Will

It’s true that a more agile way of working has been accelerated by COVID-19, but many businesses were already heading in this direction pre-pandemic.

While the great home working experiment we have all been part of for the last few weeks has proved that flexible working can work, this certainly does not mean the end of the physical office.

While many say the pandemic will revolutionise the office, I think the truth is that it is a catalyst that will speed up and more widely introduce trends that were already occurring.

For example, our health is now even higher up the agenda so there will be a greater focus on the impact that chemicals in building materials have on us, as highlighted in our Transparency platform, which looks at non-toxic alternatives.

During the lockdown, many will have got used to having their own space in their home office, but let’s not forget the huge number of employees, especially in London, who rent or share small apartments, or those who are having to juggle working from home with home schooling. They may be keen to get back to their well-facilitated and supportive workplaces.

While corporate culture across industries continues its move from being dogmatic about presenteeism towards encouraging flexible working, this in no way means the physical office will be consigned to history. People’s desire for belonging to a community and having physical interaction will prevail.

Fundamentally, the crisis will accelerate the adoption of pre-existing trends towards dramatically more flexible work arrangements, ‘activity-based working’ and especially those that positively affect employee’s wellbeing, physical health and productivity.

Rosie Haslem, Director, Spacelab

The current context poses a huge opportunity in terms of rethinking the whole landscape of work, and of places of work. Many people now want to work from home much more in future, and are able to do so with the help of technology. But this only elevates the importance of physical places to bring people together (once distancing rules allow), to communicate and collaborate in person, and to live the culture of a business. So we will need places that really support and enable these things. Businesses will start to move away from large offices full of desks to much more considered spaces that serve the needs of their people and their processes.

This is also an exciting time to be thinking about residential design, and how to better design living spaces going forward to support the inevitable increase in working from home.

Kathryn O’Callaghan-Mills, Design Director, Area

Without doubt, COVID-19 has enforced a global working from home experiment, which has enlightened our thinking of how and where we work. It has also highlighted the importance of community and our integral need for social interaction. Who would have thought in the enforcement of working from home we would miss our colleagues so much? I see both elements as a positive as we start to re-engage in a workplace environment. Fundamentally, the workplace will adapt to a socially safe place for people to work, interact and focus. Precautions of the post-COVID-19 safety measures can be achieved through the management of people, be it through flexible hours, a working from home split, rotas of working and physical distancing – and also the management of space, desk allocation, deep cleaning, and a potential reconfiguration of spaces to allow for the new distancing measures.

With any crisis comes opportunity and we will see a surge of contactless technology – an acceleration of what would have potentially taken years to see the value of has been thrust into the limelight. Investment in technology to enforce the wellbeing of the workforce will be at the forefront of our minds.

The future of the workplace has changed its make-up, but that’s the beauty of a workplace – it’s forever adapting and flexing to suit our needs.

Jacqui Martin, Founder, Design_North 

We have all been presented with a unique opportunity to assess what is important to us – to reflect on both our personal and work lives. As far as the workplace goes, it would be natural to over-react by introducing physical barriers, but this is not a long-term solution. Agile working is still the way to go, as it gives people a choice to work in different settings, using technology to support communication and knowledge sharing – the physical workplace can become even richer, a real destination that people choose to go to, rather like your favourite coffee shop. The rise of community will also cross-over more into the workplace – people will be more appreciative of the times we do get together, albeit less often. I hope that organisations will build on this experience and keep the momentum going.

The one thing that this experience has proven is that people and organisations can adapt quickly and effectively. The change process is traditionally a long, drawn-out process, and although shock tactics are not the way forward, I think there will be more sway for mobile working than against it – better productivity, reduced travel and lower overheads. However, it still must be a choice. It cannot be one or the other, work in the office or homeworking, it’s going to have to be both, and a whole lot more experientially.


Colin Macgadie, Chief Creative Officer, BDG architecture + design

As a studio, we have always advocated designing a full range of inclusive and diverse spaces for the multitude of tasks performed by people in the day-to-day of modern work. Traditionally in the UK, for 5% of the workforce, that range of spaces has always included the ‘home’ – only now it’s relevant for 95%.

The current COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the untapped potential of ‘remote working’ and in a single moment accelerated the more than likely large-scale adoption. With mass recognition that infrastructure, technology platforms and people can all be trusted to work effectively and remain productive in isolation, organisations will now feel free to empower their staff in making the individual choice to work in the setting that best suits them – including the home. In a sector that continually feels the need to debate along polar lines (open plan v cellular – really? it’s 2020!) organisations should not feel the need to choose between home or office; this is not the ‘death of the office’ as many are predicting.

We have to approach the change to our workplace experience in the same way we approach an upgrade to our smartphones. Millions of people will do it, at the same time, all over the world. Most people will not be entirely sure why they need it, or 100% sure of what it involves, but they will do it anyway, with the expectation that, at the very least, they gain an upgraded end product with added features and improved performance.

Illustrations by Antonio Rodriguez

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