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Imagining the post-pandemic workplace

Continuing our series of ponderings on how the current crisis will affect the commercial interiors (and wider) world, we’ve asked a number of manufacturers and dealers to offer their opinions on where we’re likely to find ourselves post-COVID.

06/05/2020 6 min read

Imagining the post-pandemic workplace – business as usual?

Design and architecture has always been influenced and shaped by disease, pandemics and epidemics – creating new needs for the buildings and cities where we live and work. With offices abandoned and once-bustling city centres empty (for the most part) it’s difficult to imagine what the world of commercial design will look like after the virus.

Anyone who’s watched the Coronavirus Daily Updates on the telly will be all too aware (and, if you’re anything like us, a little tired) of journalists persisting with questions about when and how things are likely to shift in the not-too-distant future.

We’ve asked a number of industry figures to offer their opinions of where we’re likely to find ourselves as we begin to live and work in a post-COVID world – starting with the views of a selection of leading manufacturers and dealers.

Ciara Crossan, Design Manager, Camira Fabrics

As we navigate our way through these turbulent times, our way of life and the way we approach design is ultimately changing as we adapt to a state of abnormality.

Looking ahead, we expect life to return to a new normality. One that focuses very much on keeping spaces clean and healthy, with fabrics that play their part in the new era of public health hygiene, whilst also capturing the essence of community and comfort. As we slowly emerge from working exclusively from home, the trend for ‘resimercial’ design will gain further momentum as we seek familiarity and reassurance within both corporate and home office environments. With this in mind, we envisage designers will look to source products that offer balance and bring a sense of calm to commercial interiors, whilst having new specification opportunities for the home office with true domestic appeal.

The mantra ‘less is more’ is likely to be an overarching trend as we go back to basics; embracing the restraints that have become part of our new normality. We anticipate streamlined yet tasteful neutral palettes to be adopted, allowing customers to coordinate with existing collections and schemes. For us, this means focusing on creating timeless, quality products that ensure longevity. Sustainable thinking and materiality will take on even more importance. As we develop our collections for 2020/2021, we are underpinning these with the very notion outlined above.

Matt Davies, Sales Director, The Furniture Practice

We are all unsure about exactly what the future holds, but there is certainly an abundance of social media activity, recommending best practice in this field. Some recurring themes include the re-designing of existing office layouts to have wider circulation routes, lower desk densities, reviewing of meeting room sizing with lower capacity, and additions of furniture interventions, such as barrier screening on workstations.

Many clients recognise that working from home will become more normalised and it will be more important than ever to design the office to become more of destination – a place to collaborate and, in the fullness of time, a place to socialise once more with colleagues. Also, some workers will want to ensure that they have more contained places to work, where they can have their own ‘safe’ space.

Will this new era reverse the trend of open plan working and free-address workstations? Will there be a tendency to have client-facing spaces outside of the general workplace in order to reduce risk of and for visitors? Will there be more first aid rooms where staff can be removed to a safe place? We are sure that design will need to offer future flexibility, such that the space can easily be reconfigured if such an event were to happen again.

Tony Antoniou, Managing Director, Rainbow

I believe the after effects of COVID-19 will actually have a positive effect on the workplace, especially since the lockdown has proven that homeworking can be successful. People have also been able to spend more time with their families, so may decide to work remotely where possible to increase time spent with loved ones. If everyone decided to work just one day a week at home, there would be a 20% reduction of staff in the workplace. It would be good if this resulted in new layouts being adopted to reduce desk numbers and increase social spaces (especially those for making and receiving video calls).

Having more social spaces would also make being at the office a more enjoyable experience and will have a positive impact on employee wellbeing, which will be more important than ever; the extra space could also allow for wellbeing, training workshops etc.

On another note, due to the limited time we are currently allowed outside, our appreciation for the environment has increased and could mean more attention will be given to products that are locally sourced or are made from sustainable materials, as well as where our old products are disposed – in turn this would be a great boost for UK manufacturers and companies, as well as the environment.

Robin Bayliss, Group Sales Director, Bisley

No one really knows what the future holds – we can predict changes in the short- to medium-term (well, until we’ve all been given a miracle vaccine) – but not the longer-term future. Clearly, masks and social distancing will become normal behaviour. I can certainly see shared workstations being a complete ‘no go’ area and this could finally put an end to the era of the long bench desking that, in reality, no one honestly likes. What will the future bring? Home-based or office-based – well we’re social beings and we need to be around other people; we’re all fed up of Zoom! 

The long-standing open plan office will be completely reviewed and about time too. With air filtration and circulation being a key spreader, there is the need of HEPA filters to remove harmful particles. There will be the need to go tall again so this means, as we’ve seen already, screen manufacturers having a field day. Storage will go tall again, to be used as a tool for directing the flow of staff, dividing spaces and stopping too much collaboration. Can’t believe I’d ever say the phrase ‘too much collaboration’ – but stranger things have happened. Is this the return of the pens and cubicle workstations and cellular offices of yesteryear? 

Monica Pedrali, CEO, Pedrali Spa

Pedrali has always worked in the hospitality industry. In public spaces, our furniture was already designed to primarily feature ease of maintenance, hygiene and cleaning, as well as durability over time despite the constant and sustained use of aggressive cleaning agents.

As for the office, given the historical moment we are living in today, we strongly believe that there is a need to stop and reflect, since these factors will surely begin to interest this sector as well.

We hope for a growing attention to the quality of materials: in the tabletops, for example, or in the padded items, whose demand has grown exponentially in the last few years, due to their employment in public and in breakout areas, to give a sense of comfort and wellness to employees. In recent years, we have focused mostly on the shape of the product and on colours rather than on the quality of its upholstery.

Therefore, it is necessary to rethink with this mind about all spaces, offices included – to make up for the needs of spaces that will ask for quick adaptability to different purposes.

We also believe in the importance of focusing on the quality of the home office set-up right now – through the choice of the right piece of furniture, since we are convinced that it will be more and more entwined into our everyday life – as well as towards collective spaces inside clinics, hospitals and nursing homes.

Jonathan Hindle, Group Managing Director, KI

During the COVID-19 lockdown, office workers all over the world have had to embrace remote working practices. Virtual meetings, collaboration, even socialising have been made possible by online platforms and cloud technology. But eventually, we will start returning to our offices and the aftereffects along with ongoing social distancing may transform workspace strategies and space-planning for the short to medium term.

People may now feel reluctant to sit in open plan offices and shared spaces. Collaborative spaces, meeting rooms, cafés, even lounge areas could benefit from larger tables and fewer chairs. This ensures people can undertake their work while sitting further apart, while dividing office space with fixed or movable screening helps restrict areas to smaller groups of people.

Increasing capacity to accommodate technology can also be important so having desktop power allows easy laptop and phone charging and supports flexible working. This can be retrofitted to existing furniture, and helps support a phased or staggered office attendance rota.

Acoustics may become an additional consideration if more people are utilising computer-based audio/video communications tools such as Zoom, Skype or Teams. Better audio equipment and acoustic panelling may become necessary to allow multiple calls, or multiple participants to be on a call simultaneously within proximity.

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