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In (a meeting) space, no one can hear you scream

What exactly does a COVID-secure office look like? Criteo’s Mike Walley ponders.

30/09/2020 3 min read

As a workplace executive, I get a constant stream of marketing material about how to make my offices COVID-secure.

I have been offered all manner of screens and sanitiser stations, more signage solutions than one man could ever need and various design services to help me work out the most secure one-way system imaginable. A recurring theme is ‘The Touchless Office’, but I think that is now outdated and we should be turning our attention to the air that we breathe.

It is now universally accepted that the most prevalent vector in virus transmission is the airborne aerosol, and so we wear masks in shops and in schools and on buses. If you work in France, as of September 1st, you will have to wear a mask in all public places including the office. In my opinion, this is a right and proper response to the risk, so I don’t understand why we are not talking more about airflow in the office. Recent research shows that in confined spaces there can be ‘airborne transmission’ of the virus – with tiny virus particles lingering in the air and so it is vital to have a flow of clean air.

I am particularly looking at meeting rooms and the risk they pose. I have rarely found a meeting room with adequate ventilation, a vital ingredient in lowering the viral load of a space, and so I think about how long I’d be happy to sit in a small enclosed space with other people, even if two metres apart and wearing a mask. I also consider how long I would wait before I go into a meeting room that had been occupied by only one person.

Can we see a day when confidential meetings are conducted over Zoom and, on the odd day we actually go into an office, do we just need comfortable space in which to gather and chat about stuff?

As a real estate manager, I am looking at all the square footage we have invested in the meeting rooms and realise we will just need to write it off for the duration of the pandemic.

But what about afterwards? There is a lot of rethinking going on; about how we use space in the future, how much we need, and how often we go to the office to use it. I wonder if that will change the way we meet and so change the way we create space for those meetings.

Can we see a day when confidential meetings are conducted over Zoom and, on the odd day we actually go into an office, do we just need comfortable space in which to gather and chat about stuff?

How about we take the fronts off those meeting rooms that are against the perimeter and turn them into booths?

Let’s demolish the centre space meeting rooms and build a café!

Possibly a little drastic, but risk management collides with economics here. How much risk does a meeting room pose to business continuity? (Think about an entire team being infected at the same time.) How long can a company keep paying for significant levels of space that is not used? (What percentage of your space is meeting rooms?)

Right now there are still more questions than answers in the world of workplace, but I believe it is vital that, in the middle of our thinking about sanitiser gel, masks and one way systems, we do not forget the changes being ushered in by COVID-19, and what that will mean for the way we think about offices.

Mike Walley is Senior Director of Global Real Estate & Workplace Strategy at Criteo

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