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The workplace has always been a fluid concept, and over the years, it has evolved to meet the transforming needs of modern businesses. However, COVID-19 has brought the design of the workplace into sharp focus, creating immediate and pressing concerns about suitability for use.

While many people have juggled work from the sanctity of their home, for many, this was only ever going to be a temporary solution. Zoom and other virtual meetings bridged the gap caused by the lack of physical presence, but not all practicalities could be easily circumvented.

As the UK starts to cautiously re-open, employers everywhere are having to take a fresh look at their working environment. From a reception area which encourages safe practices to one-way traffic flow systems through the office, the post-pandemic 2020 world looks very different.

It can feel like an overwhelming amount to consider, and it’s fair to say that the changes have to be substantial. The good news is that many businesses around the world have already faced these challenges and are providing inspiration on how you can restructure your workplace for the benefit of all.

Social Distancing and Privacy

 Along with handwashing, social distancing has been a constant control, intended to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Scrutiny of some workplaces where large numbers of employees were infected has shown that working in close proximity is a significant risk factor.

Indeed, while many workers have indicated that they would prefer a blend of remote and office working, they’re not comfortable about returning to the same environment as before.

The trend for open-plan offices is in direct contrast to safe working practices in a COVID-19 world. The typical 1200x800mm desks all slotted together in a large and open area won’t offer the opportunity for effective social distancing. Colleagues who previously sat in close proximity simply won’t be able to stick to recommended guidelines unless there’s a radical change in the architecture and design of our office spaces.

Every aspect will need to be redesigned and considered, from the removal of large sofas in reception areas and staff rooms to discourage proximity to the use of furniture as acoustic shields.

The solution will look different for every business, but it raises valid questions for discussion. Few employers will have the immediate option to simply expand, so the dilemma is how to squeeze more practical space out of the same footprint by simple restructuring and smart working.

One possibility would be the creation of private build rooms and offices, and eschewing the ideals of open-plan offices completely. This would certainly offer better opportunities from social distancing – and research would suggest that the spread of the virus would be inhibited.

The problem with private build rooms is they are space-intensive, meaning you can’t fit as many employees into the same size building. For many companies, therefore, a more creative answer will need to be uncovered.

A solution could be the use of acoustic curtains to section off areas and provide safe bubbles within a wider space. Kvadrat and designers such as Doshi Levien have collaborated to develop aesthetically pleasing curtains which and lightweight and can be hung from tracks around the office.

This notion of effectively zoning areas of the office is one which is expected to be developed further, with parts of the office repurposed to create smaller sections which provide privacy and opportunities for social distancing. This will be invaluable – and essential – to encourage employees to return to the workplace in 2020, 2021 and beyond.

What Does Hygiene Look Like?

 Historically, keeping the workplace was a clear and uncomplicated process but the presence of the Corona-virus has meant scrutinising cleanliness in much greater depth.

The enforced lockdown has meant that much of the general public now has a greater awareness of virology, and how illness can spread. Keeping the workplace clean is critical to prevent a further lockdown, and to stop COVID-19 – or any other virus – spreading unchecked through the workplace.

Fabrics aren’t the high-risk virus-spreader that was initially feared, but they are much more difficult to clean. Kvadrat and other companies have developed an antimicrobial cleaner for fabrics – but these only clean bacteria and not viruses. The benefits of this shouldn’t be dismissed, but if you’re searching for a solution specifically to counter COVID-19, this cleaner won’t be our office saviour.

It’s also worth considering the fact that good bacteria can also be wiped away with cleaners, creating a solution that’s counterproductive. In the longer term, this could leave employees exposed to more harmful bacteria, not less.

The value of touch-free spaces shouldn’t be underestimated and before adding any material into a space, it’s important to ask what functional value it brings. Increased risk for the sake of aesthetics simply isn’t acceptable.

Vinyl flooring can help to keep germs at bay with an easy-clean surface that’s practical and safe. Technology is catching up too, with jaw-dropping innovations such as waterproof wallpaper that can even be used in wet rooms and swimming pool areas.

Using IT to Work Smarter

 IT has been the answer for many employers, even though it’s been challenging at times. The relaxing of lockdown restrictions doesn’t mean that everything can revert to things as they were before. In fact, to be able to manage the ongoing demands of social distancing, IT is going to be more important than ever.

A number of high-profile employers have been quick to announce that their staff can continue to enjoy remote working, if they prefer. Polls of the general public have indicated that many would like the flexibility of being able to work remotely, with a combination of home and office work.

Moving forward, to maintain social distancing and keep risk to a minimum, employers will have to consider more agile ways of working in the longer term. The future of the workplace needs input from IT to create solutions which are sustainable.

IT solutions could actually relieve some of the pressure on the physical space by minimising the need for a physical presence, and allowing more work to be completed remotely. If tech can’t be used to create a more diverse working landscape, the commercial property market could find itself facing pressures with demand for space increasing. Larger desks, greater distance between workers and complex systems of movement, such as one-way traffic around an office, will create a need for larger properties.

Conversely, many businesses may be facing a financial stretch because of the impact the virus has had on operations. Wherever possible, reconfiguring existing space with imaginative zoning supported by tech solutions will be the preferred option for most.

A Different Workplace for 2021 and Beyond?

 Space planning will never be as essential as it is right now, with functional and hygienic design of primary importance over simple aesthetics. By learning how to use space more flexibly, and by adapting other methods of working, the future of the workplace is secure, but very different from the past.

For more information on design and space planning, get in touch with Sidorova Design for expert advice on moving your office to the post-COVID-19 world.

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