Depending on when employees return to working in offices, in the short term, social distancing measures and hygienic practices would likely still be required. Offices will need to be able to provide for increased cleaning procedures and sanitising products. Logistically speaking, office spaces will also need to allow for more space per employee, and should encourage employees to keep their distances. In the longer term, these practices may have implications for office layouts, demand and portfolios.  

Preparing Buildings for Reopening
Cushman & Wakefield and CBRE have released guidelines preparing businesses for reopening workplaces. Both guides have identified the need for enhanced cleaning; building inspection, HVAC and mechanical checks; access protocols (eg temperature screening, health checks, delivery of items, elevators, etc); reconfiguration of workspaces to reduce touch points (eg open doors, paper placemats for desks, etc.); as well as increased provision of sanitising products. They also recommend looking into workforce arrangements, such as scheduling shifts, and gradually increasing the number of people returning as opposed to having full teams returning at once. Communication between employees, employers, occupiers and landlords is also recommended.

Social Distancing
Offices can be redesigned to facilitate new protocols, such as by creating larger buffers around individual employees. Cushman & Wakefield has redesigned their Amsterdam headquarters, creating what they call the Six Feet Office. The one-week redesign of the office focused on ensuring that people are always six feet away from each other. This was achieved through properly spaced desks, but also with visual signals, such as a circle on the carpet around each desk to remind people not to get too close. Other design cues include using arrows on the floor, to encourage people to only walk clockwise, in lanes around the office. Unidirectional traffic is said to be the approach used in hospitals to help avoid the spread of pathogens. The office also has protocols in place such as using paper placemats for desks, which are then thrown away at the end of the day.

Technology can help reduce the spread of the virus during the early stages of returning to offices. Cushman & Wakefield’s Amsterdam headquarters utilises beacons in the office to track the movements of employees. These are partly to audit the efficacy of their redesign, but they can also be used to alert employees when they get too close.

Similarly, CBRE suggested the use of touchless technologies to minimise spread through contact. According to Oliver Wainwright in his commentary on post-Covid architecture, Arjun Kaicker, who led the workplace team at Foster and Partners, is working with offices to implement some strategies. For example, Zaha Hadid Architects’ new headquarters for Bee’ah waste management company in UAE is designed around “contactless pathways”, where employees will rarely have to touch a surface as they navigate the building. Technology aids with this objective, such as with lifts that can be called from a smartphone and doors which can open automatically using motion sensors and facial recognition.

Beyond Covid-19
Beyond the short-term measures put in place to minimise the spread of the virus, practices and new working arrangements may have longer term effects on office configurations, in turn affecting office demand and portfolios.

Social Interaction and Collaboration
With so much emphasis on social distancing in current times, what then will happen to the popular workplace culture that encouraged interaction and collaboration? Worktech Academy noted that coworking venues which emphasised a collaborative community with all sorts of companies may not be as tempting anymore. Oliver Wainwright noted that Darren Comber, chief executive of Scott Brownrigg, and Arjun Kaicker both believe that workplaces might change. They suggested that spaces will move away from open-plan layouts, with better ventilation and more openable windows. Kaicker believed that offices might have wider corridors and doorways, with more partitions between departments, as opposed to the co-working selling point of putting entire teams in one place to mingle with other businesses.

Jeff DeGraff, however, believes that there is still a place for ‘creative clusters’, environments that spark creativity. While working from home may make people reluctant to return to busy offices, DeGraff suggests that people might not want to work at home either. He believed that, in the absence of lockdowns, ‘creative clusters’ will start popping up in buildings. These spaces enable fluidity, allowing people to drop in and be energized by the people around them.

Building Portfolio
Shifts in workplace arrangements would likely have implications on office buildings. With more space per employee required, offices can become less dense, with a shift away from an open-plan layout. Together with larger desks, wider corridors, larger lobbies and maximum occupancy requirements aimed at reducing overcrowding, Kaicker pointed out that high-rise buildings may become more expensive to build and be less efficient.

On the other hand, some companies may find that working from home arrangements are viable. With adequate technological support and possibly with workforce arrangements for employees to rotate between working at the office or at home, some companies may find that they require less traditional office space. But rather, they may prefer a balanced and arguably more resilient portfolio that can cater for on-site and virtual working.

In terms of office space demand, it is likely that occupiers would prefer offerings with a focus on health, safety and wellbeing. Landlords that can demonstrate that their facilities can support safe and healthy environments would likely have a greater capacity to attract tenants.

Cover Image: Cushman & Wakefield’s redesign of their Amsterdam headquarters utilises design cues to encourage social distancing. (Image: Cushman & Wakefield)