Living life with coronavirus has meant a few things have changed, such as only 20 people in a restaurant at a time, family gatherings are 5 indoors and 10 outdoors. This isn’t the only thing that will change. As we return back to the office with our coronavirus-altered future.

Over the last few weeks Peter van Woerkum the Chief Operating Office at Cushman and Wakefield real estate has spent it contemplating his return to work boundaries. Each step he takes must now be carefully considered, as we are living life with coronavirus. The unseen enemy. All in order to keep us and the community safe and in this situation, our fellow workmates.

To start his day at the office, Peter takes the lift to his floor, that allows only 2 people at a time. A potential traffic jam but very necessary. Walking in a clockwise direction to the reception, to avoid bumping into people he takes a recycled disposable paper mat to cover his work desk. The office area is spacious as people are spread out and some of the furniture is missing, in order to stop the clutter. Everything is spotlessly clean, as the cleaners have been in the night before. He notices the marks on the floor that show just how close a colleague can get if they’re coming in for a conversation. He has BYO keyboard, mouse and laptop and has a special copper key that allows him to push, press and pull buttons, doors and handles so’s not to touch anything.

Cushman and Wakefield real estate are not the only business thinking about what needs to change, as the employees start returning to work. His coronavirus return to work project has been nicknamed the “six feet office” as it considers the social distancing rules to stop the spread of coronavirus. Living life with coronavirus.

Van Woerkum says, “when we launched, everybody immediately got extremely excited about the fact that there was a prospect of going back to the office at some point, and in a safe way.” Firstly, he started with five staff, but that has since increased to 20 as some of the restrictions have eased. He continues to say that the feedback to his “six feet office” has been positive as employees are happy to return to the office with the safety measures in place. In other words, people are keen to start socialising again with their co-workers. At first staff may find it a bit awkward chatting about their weekend on a Monday morning while they’re keeping their distance. Subsequently, staff need time to adapt. But van Woerkum says he’ll continue to test new office layouts and systems, and any new technology. Importantly he says, six-feet office is an ever- evolving project that seeks new improvements. For example, his latest test consisted of putting in beacons to detect the workflow of people moving around in the building. In short, he believes that sets up like his six-feet office at Cushman and Wakefield, will be embraced as the norm for many companies, living life with coronavirus.

Over the last few months, companies have had enormous challenges such as transitioning staff to work remotely and trying to stay afloat in the- midst of the pandemic. For most states, governments are doing what they can to return to some- kind of normal, while living life with coronavirus. Subsequently, office workers are set to return to the office at some point, if not already. But this needs to be done safely and reasonably. Certainly, another challenge for businesses.

With Victoria about to go into lockdown again because the virus is still spreading in certain areas. How can we ensure employee safety at the office? And as a result, we need to ask is this the end of desk to desk office set up, close collaboration, physical team meetings and less staff in at a time? If working from home is a success, do we even need an office? There could be some employees who prefer to work from home and are unwilling to come to the office even when restrictions ease for fear of infection or perhaps they prefer the convenience of working from home. Importantly, it is over the next few months, or weeks, that the office of the coronavirus altered future is going to have to be built.

In the “six-feet” office, desks are surrounded with floor marks indicating how close colleagues should stand.

Your return to the office

To help in the return to work, the government has put together the safe work Australia guidelines with advice on hygiene, social distancing, the four- square metre of space rule, and mental health just to name a few.

The advice is simple;

  • physical distancing regulations and how to calculate the 4 square-metre rule;
  • the increase need of handwashing;
  • desk set-up and office layout;
  • adding signage for example entry-exit and 1.5 metre floor markings;
  • use mobile phones, radio, handsets to communicate or computer messaging system such as Teams rather than a face to face chat.
  • stagger meal breaks
  • implement measures for waiting areas, lifts and corridors
  • place signage about physical distancing around the workplace. Here is a range of posters and resources to help remind workers and others of the risks of COVID-19 and the measures that are necessary to stop its spread.

In the UK, the British Council for office has called for more specific changes, calling on the expertise of architects. For example, some of their ideas include automatic doors, contactless toilet pods, ventilation boosters, and programmable lifts. In addition, they talk about smart solutions such as tracking movements, set reminders about washing hands and cleaning down desks.

Above all, it’s important for employees to feel safe when they return to work. Stephanie Woodward, head of interior design at Cushman and Wakefield, told ZDNet.  “The point is to have an office designed purposefully to show that you can socially distance, and you can work. That’s the only way staff will come back to the office.

Most analysts predict Covid19 will last well into 2021 especially since there is no vaccine in the immediate future. Over the next few months, the goal will be to return to work in small increments rather than all at once. For example, the team at Cushman & Wakefield in Amsterdam has 20 employees in the office which is down from its 250 people in normal times. 

In the return to work process business leaders will need to firstly, think about which roles they absolutely need to have in the office. Secondly, plan for those returning to work.

Some office planning will consist;

  • seating plans will need to change, and desks will need to be re-arranged.
  • signs will need to be put up to remind staff when they need to wash their hands and safely cough and sneezing.
  • markings on the floors to indicate how to move from A to B.
  • “sneeze guards”, between desks are those plastic panel screens

How to design a safer place to work

The coworking-space company, WeWork has published its plans for a safe and clean working environment. The plan outlines the types of layouts we can expect when we return to work. They’re designed to increase sanitation, particularly in high-touch spaces like pantries and printing areas. In addition, it looks at seating arrangements that maintain social distancing in the office space, kitchens, meeting rooms, and waiting areas.

As a result of the safe and clean working plan, reception desks will include 1.5m floor stickers, hands-free dispenser sanitisers throughout the office, and ventilation to deliver clean fresh air. In addition, stickers and signs dotted around to remind workers to act responsibly. 

Head of building operations for WeWork EMEA, Eilam Gazit explains that designers have been working on adjusting the company’s spaces to the new guidelines.  It’s a bit of a challenge with 660,000 members globally coming in to work together. Consequently, the ongoing challenge has been to design for collaboration – while keeping everyone one point five to two metres apart.

As a result, the configuration of their space Gazit says was to “foster a sense of collaboration and connection.” All while maintaining covid health and safety measures.

WeWork has changed its seating policy to maintain social distancing, limiting capacity in lounges, work nooks and meeting rooms

Not every company is a global corporation with a dedicated design team like WeWork. But businesses can benefit greatly from their ideas that they are already testing out. For instance, Cushman and Wakefield’s concept of a “six- feet” has already been shared with their clients. This was part of a recovery readiness handbook they designed to assist partnering companies’ also return to work.

When is comes to ensuring employee safety, companies sometimes don’t know where to start. All they know is they need to reopen their offices. Sometimes the safety protocol, just isn’t practicable and can even cause issues. For instance, Woodward of Cushman and Wakefield’s team calculated that enforcing a two-metre distance rule in lifts at peak times would generate a two-mile long queue outside of the building. Importantly, Woodward says is you have- to show your employees you’ve thought their safety. For example, how to make the journey into the building a safe one or getting fresh air into the building, not just re-circulate the air.

Creating the office of the future

The Director of AKTII, the structural engineering company Rob Partridge back in 2016 started planning the design of a biomedical research centre in London called Francis Crick Institute. Rob was unaware that some of the lab’s key features from four years ago, might be relevant to the design of future workplaces. He says, “we are taking learnings from the lab sector and placing them in the designs for offices following COVID-19.” 

The architect explains that when designing the Francis Crick Institute, time went into creating better air quality in the lab as well as surface top selection. Likewise, materials found in the lab such as anti-viral coatings or composites for surfaces are possibly going to make their way to the future office. Importantly for their ease of cleaning and resistance to viruses.

Rob Partridge’s “simple graphics” illustrate how life sciences might have short-term solutions for traditional offices. Image: AKT II

In our current environment, futurist style technology is advancing quickly for office equipment. Firstly, Vital Vio, a lighting company has launched it “antimicrobial lights.” Its sales spiel, when the lights are on, it creates an inhospitable environment for bacteria and microbes to grow. Certainly, better than a good deep cleaning.

Secondly, Gansler the design company has developed a “physical distancing tool” called ReRun that uses current office layout. The data-driven process for post-COVID workplace occupancy planning ReRun can quickly identify the most suitable plan for a variety of physical distancing conditions. In addition, Tharsus, the robotics company has release “bump” a low energy Bluetooth technology that warns users they’re getting too close to someone else.It’s also a good tool to track employees and better map social distancing measures and walk flow.

Furthermore, temperature checks could be a mandatory requirement when entering a business. And as a- consequence, the thermal camera services market is set to boom. Future style technologies are fast developing to quickly screen the body temperature. Importantly, these camera devices by way of heat-detection, can scan a- number of people at a time.

Above all, any surface that requires touching is a chance for imaginative inventors and entrepreneurs to make contactless. For example

  • automatic doors
  • employees could also use an app to control lights and temperature
  • even to call the lift and automate the coffee machine. 
  • automated toilet flushing or triggered by a hand signal.

Zaha Hadid, from a Middle Eastern architectural company recently completed the building of new headquarters for Bee’ah a waste management company. The designs were signed off in 2014, yet thankfully included automatic doors using motion sensors, facial recognition, and remote controls for kitchen services and lifts. Whether they were coincidental or visionary, we are not sure? But regardless of which way we look, the Bee’ah’s office design provides a compelling insight into the future.

The idea that designers had in mind for Bee’ah’s headquarters was to create contactless pathways throughout the space. 
Image: Render by MIR ©Zaha Hadid Architects

Opening up and moving out

Open plan layouts have been gaining popularity over the 20 years to foster community spirit, team meetings, shared spaces and greater office density. These were to replace the cubical style set up of the past. Yet on average workers now enjoy eight square metres of personal space, down from almost 12 square metres in 2008, this is according to a study done by BCO.  However, government advice for social distancing is the more space between us the better. Going against the 20 year trend of less space between us.

In our return to work employees will be protecting their own personal space with the help of a new set of norms. But just how long will those norms last, is the million- dollar question. Eventually, once things return to normal and the government says that we are free from the guidelines. Partridge from AKTII says more importantly, what will employees want to do?

The pandemic has fast-tracked he global work-from-home experiment that won’t be reversed overnight. That’s to say employees now equipped with all the remote tools for collaboration, will be keen to stay at home even when the lockdown rules have eased.

Gartner, in a recent report showed that employers aren’t reluctant to the idea of their workforce permanently working from home. Firstly, three-quarters of finance leaders said after the crisis has passed, they’ll allow some staff to continue working from home. Secondly, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has announced publicly committing to letting his entire staff stick with remote working if they want to, even after restrictions have been lifted.

In addition, a survey by Cushman and Wakefield found that 72% of their remote working staff expected to work on a more flexible arrangement once restrictions lifted. Importantly, 90% felt trusted by their managers to continue working remotely.  Will staff still want to stay away from each other? Have remote workers enjoyed working from home and its convenience?  Or are staff wanting things to go back to normal?

The answer to these questions, Partridge says is the real challenge. In other words, their new office design depends on the answer. He continues to say, “there is now evidence that every industry can positively work from home. No employer can say it doesn’t work. So, with this new -found flexibility, how will it work and be managed?

Partridge along with other leaders are confident that flexible working arrangements are here to stay. His own staff made the adjustment within the week to remote working. So, lockdown hasn’t stopped productivity for his team.  But on the hand, there’s no way of knowing for him how the physical office post-coronavirus will be accepted. Therefore, he’s left to draw his own conclusions based on his own experiences. Partridge does say, “as a creative industry, a lot happens through human interaction and exchanging ideas and you lose some of that when you stare at your screen and do video conferences all day.”

Slack, providers of a communication platform surveyed 2,000 UK workers about their remote working experience. 84% said communication with colleagues have been affected with over two-thirds finding communicating with their teammates challenging.

Meanwhile, Partridge’s vision of the future office workers, will include WFH but still able to grab a pen and write on the board for all to see. Thanks to modern technologies such as VR. “You could simulate hand gestures, sketch in front of people or play with a 3D model, in a virtual meeting-room environment,” says Partridge. In saying that, Partridge still believes some physical office will be required to accompany these virtual reality tools. However, transferring t the virtual world might not suit every business. In conclusion, the coronavirus pandemic will mean a rethink about what the office is for.

Similarly, other business leaders while nutting out the technicalities of safely returning to work in the next few weeks-months will need to rethink what the physical office will be used for in the medium to long term. For example, many universities have a model that allows employees to come in to use the tools or equipment that they don’t have at home. Otherwise they are working from home.  As a result of the pandemic, we can see a dramatic workplace cultural shift on the horizon that companies need to plan for.

Companies already foreseeing their need to adjust to a flexible workforce and the realisation a -number of areas could be vacate at the office for some days in the week are taking the necessary steps. For instance, some staff will be wanting the office to be a social hub, and a place of interaction for face-to-face meetings, once restrictions lift.

Caroline Pontifex is already seeing clients start to think seriously about their future office’s role. Caroline is the director of KKS-Savills, the workplace design studio.  She’s already asking her clients, “What is the reason you need to come together?” At the office, it will be the need for those face-face interactions.

Therefore, the office she argues will be a place to meet, come together and interact with the physical world, and share ideas before retreating to our homes to do individual tasks and any creative thinking. Pontifex believes, that will move away from the desk or meeting room set up to a greater variety of set ups in the future. So, if we’re gathering in groups, office designs will have to provide, sufficient- capacity. For instance, focus rooms, quiet spaces, meeting booths, and talk-tables will take over the traditional desk set-up.

Pontifex and her team conducted a study prior to lockdown that showed that offices with a greater variety of settings were also those that showed better levels of satisfaction. So, it comes as no surprise that changing the workplace into a hub for collaboration is only a continuation of an already forming trend.

In returning to the office we can surmise staff will have different expectations. Of course, some may still want their tradition type set up to carry out their work. And not everyone is happy with working from home or can comfortably work from home. But desktop use will be equally matched with more specified tasks. Consequently, staff will expect their workspace to be designed to meet that need. Certainly, throwing a few break-out zones in the middle of rows of desks, won’t be enough anymore. It will need to be a more “collaborative space” for real.

Get ready for hygiene ratings in the workplace

It’s probably a little presumptuous to think businesses will rely completely on video conferencing tools even when the workforce is happy to work from home during the pandemic. In other words, the office will be of some use. They may be less – crowded but we can imagine that offices will be a place of contact for managers and their staff. But just how much space will they need? This is where businesses need to re-evaluate their needs. For example, more space will be needed to keep the social distancing requirements and the four- square metre rule so typically you would think more space is needed. On the other hand, if half the office is now working remotely, surely you can keep it the same? These are all questions businesses are asking themselves. Cushman & Wakefield realise for them, this is still a learning curve stating, “if employees work flexibly, can the client condense their real estate and save some money? “ Or on the other hand, “does it mean we need to repurpose the workspace and provide different types of facilities for those coming back to the office?”

These types of questions are also on the minds of architects too. Since they are now designing the office space of the future. For example, Darren Comber the CEO of architecture practice Scott Brownrigg believes that increased hygiene standards will be a part of our everyday work culture into the future. So, his job now is to make sure this is architecturally possible.

Perhaps a rooftop terrace would be a nice to have to feature and a great way to include greater access to external spaces. At the- moment, it’s a choice but it will soon become a mandatory part of an office building code.  Similarly, air-conditioning units that re-cycle the air will be replaced with units capable of providing continued cooled fresh air. Comber also believes that instead of relying on lifts that have the potential of becoming overcrowded, staircases will be the new premium item.

Buildings are now expected to be environment-friendly. Similarly, design offices both clean and demonstrate high levels of wellbeing will be expected in the future. Comber argues, if restaurants can get hygiene performance ratings, there is no reason that the workplace get a hygiene and wellness tick.

Comber says, “there could be some sort of evaluation method to reflect the air quality, how much you can socially distance, if you have access to clean air, and so on” Furthermore stating, “people will choose where they work based on this”

An ideal for living and working

Yet to be imagined in the minds of designers and architects is the office of the future. But on the other hand, we do see a glimpse of wider staircases, rooftop terraces, automatic doors and those clean hygienic surfaces. In the disease fighting times of the past, we know historically these periods have shaped our cities. For example, the cholera outbreak of the 19th century led to cities setting out roads in grids to be able to move waste safely and provide clean drinking water to communities.  Certainly, this is something we do even today.

For many workers that live in overcrowded city centres there maybe an appeal to leave their areas for the quieter, more remote area. In other words, leave the city for the country and only come into the office once a week.

And it’s not just designers and designers thinking about the 9-5 office space, city planners are having to re-imagine community spaces. Tom Venables, urban planner at London-based company Prior + Partners says, “a lot of the trends we have identified over the past few years have suddenly come into public view.” But will continue to “require some large-scale master-planning.” In addition, he says “a lot of the solutions lie outside of the city’s borders, and this will take some pressure off urban centres.” As a result, smaller towns will become more appealing than the big city.

Venables expects to be catering to a community of people largely working from home as he works on the town planning design for gardens outside of the UK capital. Therefore, the local facilities and community hubs will be far more popular as people look at other ways to connect.

Venables is already experiencing his local library in South London, where the local library has been renovated. In the urban planner’s words, it looks ” more like a bar or a cinema”. Even prior to COVID-19 he says there were instances of decentralisation happening. And the library is a good example where freelancers or remote workers are busily working away in their community environment.   A place that is local with good WiFi is key, rather than a café with dodgy internet.

The changes we will see in the future are already trends that have been appearing for the last decade as technology has changed. We already have many digital resources available to us for good collaborate. That’s why working from home is working well for many businesses during the pandemic. In conclusion, whether we are working from home or the office building workers will soon be carrying out their jobs in radically different ways. The pandemic has been the catalyst in changing