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Work in the time of Covid-19: will the office ever be the same again?

Regular columnist Mike Walley, Head of Workplace Experience at Criteo, gives us his view on the future of work.

18/05/2020 3 min read
Criteo Office, Paris. Photography: Alexis Paoli

It is an interesting proposition to write an article on the workplace when the majority of the global audience for such an article are working from home. I imagine that every kind of space is being pressed into service as workspace. I for one have never spent so much time in my spare room. It just used to be where we put stuff we didn’t want to look at and now I am in here every day.

As I sit here taking a fresh look at this usually un-noticed room, a French writer comes to mind, Xavier de Maistre, who in 1790 was in lockdown, of a sort, after fighting an illegal duel. Confined to his room as punishment, with only his manservant as company, he whiled away the 49 days of his incarceration by writing a book that parodied the style of a new type of writing that was gaining popularity, the travel book. It was called A journey Around My Room and in it, he takes us on a detailed journey into every nook and cranny of his room and, incidentally, his mind as he happily wanders off into the metaphysical every now and then.

These questions lead me to ponder what was, only a month or two ago, the unthinkable… will cubicles make a comeback?

I am reminded of him as I sit in the spare bedroom, noticing all the little things that I never usually see. A badly mitred joint on the skirting, a spider happily entrenched in the top corner of the room, the handle missing off the side window and that big mark on the wall that always shows up in the middle of the screen whenever I am on a zoom call. It really needs decorating.

It is no coincidence that the Zoom feature called “virtual background” is so popular. I like to imagine I am in a booklined study with an open fire, club fender and an occasional table holding a decanter of a decent claret, and Voila! With the click of a mouse, I can be. It used to be said that you could tell what a chap wanted you to think of him by the tie he wore, and what he thought of himself by the shoes he wore. Now, I think we may subconsciously judge someone by the background they choose whilst on a zoom call.

I can see a whole new field of design emerging. Bespoke Zoom backgrounds for the discerning home worker. Images with carefully curated books in the background, or changing views from the windows of your actual home office, the possibilities are enormous.

Having said all that, we are now actively planning our return to the workplace. But this in itself is raising a huge number of questions. Not the big “Will the office ever be the same” type questions as there are thousands of pundits out there beating that particular theme to death, but the more granular issues along the lines of “Who should come back? Who has to come back?” and “ Who wants to come back?” along with the really big question…. “ How many can come back?”

We’ve been looking at floorplans and realise that in the near term, to maintain a social distance, most modern open plan designs can only accept 25% to 30% of desks being occupied. That pushes occupancy from 9 square meters per head to approximately 30 square meters per head. So we either attend the office on a rota, or “ We’re going to need a bigger boat!”

Also, the future of meeting rooms is in question. For a while now we have been looking at our meeting room portfolio with a jaundiced eye, as the majority of our meetings take place between 1 to 4 people, but, in common with many, we have a portfolio that has a majority of rooms for 6 and above. Our plan was to utilise more modular booths and split some of the larger rooms, but honestly, does anyone want to sit in confined spaces with other people anymore? A bit of geometry tells me that a circular meeting table big enough to allow 4 people to maintain the requisite 2m distancing is a minimum of 5 sqm, and that’s before we work out how to make it private enough so other people don’t overhear the conversation.

These questions lead me to ponder what was, only a month or two ago, the unthinkable… Will cubicles make a comeback?

Privacy, distance, flexibility… they seem to have it all.

In the end we all end up asking the same question….

Will the office ever be the same again?



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