Boris made his rather ambiguous announcement yesterday on his Covid-19 exit strategy and there have been plenty of previous posts from the workplace industry anticipating the announcement and how redesigning the office is the solution. But I firmly believe that we already have the answers, and have had them for some time, but have repeatedly chosen to ignore them. I recommend we start by recollecting and (re)introducing tried and tested best practice in the workplace before we push a design revolution.
Let us just remind ourselves of that long forgotten best practice design which workplace strategists have been recommending for at least two decades:
1. Occupational density – For years in the UK we have been chasing density, the space provision per person in the office, in the name of space and cost efficiency. For example, the BCO’s Occupier Density Study published in 2009 found an average of 11.8m2 per desk, across the whole building NIA, compared to 9.6m2 per desk in the 2018 study. The 2.2m2 difference may not seem like a lot but it is equivalent to losing almost one workstation with associated circulation per occupant (or two industry standard desk surfaces). Sadly, UK legislation on workspace requirements does not help – the minimum is approximately 4.6m2 per person (assuming the 11m3 minimum and a standard 2.4m floor to ceiling height). These low standards allow densities to be chased and best practice ignored. It is well documented that in the animal kingdom, overpopulation often leads to disease – nature’s way of addressing the balance. High density impacts temperature, air quality and noise along with accessibility and egress. A return to lower density offices which support performance and health is long overdue.
2. Desk size – To meet the higher densities, desk sizes have reduced. I recall my 2 x 1m desk at my first architectural practice, providing me with a clear 2m between those sitting adjacent to or opposite me. The current UK industry norm is 1400mm wide desks, and I have worked with efficiency-zealous clients insisting that 1m wide desks provide sufficient space! These smaller desks result in more noise distraction, infringement of personal space (see Hall’s Proxemic Framework) and higher likelihood of cross-infection. Simply put, stop manufacturing and installing smaller and smaller desks.
3. Partitioning – There are some similarities in designing workspaces to prevent noise distraction and cross-infection. Distance helps reduce noise, and infection. Semi-partitioning (not necessarily walls) also helps, as do desk screens that are sufficiently high enough to cover the mouth but not reduce the line of sight (approximately 1300-1400mm), but there has been an ongoing trend for low or no desk screens and minimal partitions. I am neither an advocate of private offices nor fully open plan workspaces. Office layout is not a simple dichotomy of open versus closed but a scale with an optimal layout that I refer to as the landscaped office, borrowed from Bürolandschaft. The landscaped office is predominantly open plan but with zoned and semi-partitioned spaces broken up by storage, bookshelves, planting, acoustic screens and alternative work-settings such as quiet pods, focus rooms, meeting areas and social spaces. Reintroduce zoning and partitioning in the workspace.
4. Indoor air quality (IAQ) – From a design perspective, temperature, noise and air quality are the most common causes of dissatisfaction and loss of performance in the office. In the past, the level of fresh air intake in mechanically ventilated offices was reduced, and the stale air recirculated, to minimise energy costs – outdoor air will need filtering and heating or cooling thus using more energy. This practice was partly responsible for Sick Building Syndrome and the transmission of other diseases. Fresh air rates and treatment will need readdressing in the post Covid-19 workplace.
5. Agile working – Many workplace strategists are advocates of agile/flexible/smart/ remote/activity-based working and have been promoting the benefits since the early 90s, see one of my early reports. Benefits have been proven to include: increased performance, reduced absenteeism, enhanced cross-selling, increased attraction and reduced attrition, and business continuity as less disruptions due to travel issues or viruses. Empower people to work when and where they are most productive including occasionally working from home.
- Home working – The Government’s guidance recommends working from home, a very sensible approach that is fundamental to a good agile working environment. Now that most office workers, and their managers, have experienced working from home, the uptake is likely to be higher than previously. If the workforce are allowed to work from home for say two days per week and the time in and out the office is well managed, then the number of desks required will reduce by up to 40%. In the short-term, if 40% of the desk chairs are simply removed, perhaps every other desk chair, then the overall workspace density will be reduced, and the occupants will have more buffer space. Alternatively, alternate desks could be marked or coloured up to indicate days that they may be used. However, do remember it is the employers’ responsibility to provide a safe workplace for their employees, so there will be additional costs in providing the workforce with the right technology, equipment and furniture to work effectively from home. I have already spotted unscrupulous “no win, no fee” law firms offering to represent those who have had a fall when working from home. The new office is likely to be a more blended environment mixing the physical with the virtual, so that those in or out of the office can seamlessly work together.
- Desk-sharing – Using agile
working to help reduce the density and number of desks is likely to mean that desk-sharing
(hot-desking) in some form is required. It is unlikely that hot-desking will be
carried out the way it currently is with people grabbing desks as they become
vacant. It is more likely that a shared desk is obtained and used throughout
the duration of the day followed by a deep clean overnight that allows the desk
to be used safely by a colleague the next day. The service level agreements of
cleaning contracts will need to be revisited with more regular desk cleaning.
6. Shift working – The Government’s guidance also suggest shift working (technically a type of flexible working). This is a less popular alternative to home working. In theory, the workforce could work two or even three 8-hour shifts in one day and assuming they can travel to the office the density the number of occupants, and corresponding density, could be reduced by a half or two-thirds. Again, in the short-term alternate desk chairs could be removed or desk marked up to indicate the fays they may be used.
The issue of travel is fundamental and a tricky one that needs resolving. There is little point in designing for social distancing in the post Covid-19 office if staff are first travelling to work on crowded trains and the underground. Note, train carriages are approximately 60m2 thus accommodating just 15 people with 2m separation. Furthermore, many people work in high-rise buildings, where the wait times for lifts are already agonising at peak hours, so access to upper floors will be a challenge if there is only one or two people allowed per lift car. Maybe in the long-term we will see the rise of the low-rise building or perhaps the reintroduction of paternoster lifts. Travel to and from work is a priority but agile working, with home working, is the more obvious solution in the short-term.
The above design solutions will only work if the right behaviours are in place alongside good leadership. Humans are creatures of habit and unless continuously reminded or rewarded will revert to previous behaviours. For example, consider how behaviours quickly returned to “normal” after similar, admittedly less contagious, viruses such as SARS and MERS. Also, my personal observation, is that basic hygiene such as hand-washing and social distancing has not continued with the same vigour as at the start of the pandemic. As a psychologist, I draw on basic theory to explain why new behaviours are not sustained. For example, Operant Conditioning helped clarify why behaviours that result in reward, or the avoidance of unpleasantness or punishment, are more likely to be repeated. One issue with Covid-19 is that the negative consequences are not immediate and so the “distance” from the required behaviour change makes it less sustainable. Consider the Stanford marshmallow experiment in which a child was offered a choice between one small but immediate reward (a marshmallow or pretzel), or two small rewards if they waited for 15 minutes. It was found that those with lower education were more likely to take the immediate reward rather than wait. Furthermore, in terms of everyday health threats, 60% of those suffering a heart attack return to smoking despite the clear benefits of quitting. Behaviour change also requires continuous reinforcement, whereas Covid-19 is a more like a one-off incident, so repeat communications with reminders and short-term rewards will be required to sustain the new behaviours. The design solutions above and recently proposed by the workplace community will at least act as reminder and nudge behaviours, but I am not convinced that the required behaviours will stick beyond a novelty period.
In terms of leadership, trusting and empowering staff to occasionally work from home is a clear pre-cursor to adopting agile working. In the majority of my projects, it is middle management that object the most to working from home. Many prefer their staff to be to hand and take the easy route of managing performance by time in the office rather than by agreed deliverables. More importantly, right now we need to cease the practice of presenteeism, where staff feel obliged to turn up to the office even when ill, and actively discourage staff from returning until fully restored back to good health. Our new-found skills with on-line meetings, supported by an investment in technology, will help staff connected when not in the office. In the long-term blended physical/virtual working environments will help sustain such practice.
In conclusion, workplace design can help us overcome infection from viruses but, rather than reinvent the workplace, first recollect and adopt those best practices (suggested by workplace strategists) that have been repeatedly ignored. There are some relatively easy low-cost short-term solutions, such as continuing home working and reducing desk densities by removing seats up marking up desks. Long-term design solutions will help nudge and sustain the required behaviours going forward. There are likely to be associated up-costs due to new technology, increased cleaning regimes and reduced space density, but consider it a form of medical insurance. However, right now ongoing clear and sensible communication and leadership is essential, but sadly it is not always available.
Many thanks to Maggie Procopi, Iain Smith, Paige Hodsman and Brian Thompson for their input and advice.
Many thanks to Maggie Procopi, Iain Smith, Paige Hodsman and Brian Thompson for their input and advice.