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Don’t stand so close to me: creating the resilient workplace

Recent obsession with squeezing office space has been cruelly exposed by the coronavirus crisis. Young Lee explains how social distancing rules can easily be managed within standard social norms. Is it time to revisit office protocols?

When experts predicted last year what the future workplace would look like and what trends would prevail in 2020, no one saw the unprecedented disruptions of the devastatingly contagious virus coming. Under the shelter-in-place, stay-at-home, and working from home (WFH) circumstances, many previous predictions have turned out to be irrelevant. So now is the time for us to deliberate how to prepare for reopening the post-pandemic workplace to overcome our shortcomings and provide pandemic-resilient future workplaces.

Social distancing and proxemics

 In recent decades, real estate and workplace strategy groups have been fanatical about collecting space data including occupancy/vacancy, utilisation and density as metrics of successful workplace efficiency. More people were allocated into a smaller and smaller space, creating a landscape of open-plan spaces as the most prevalent office type.

However, according to proxemics, a study of how humans use spaces and how population density influences human behaviours in communication and interaction with others, the 6-feet social distancing recommended in public health is still within the parameter of social space (see Figure 1 below). This may mean that contemporary workspace and density practice has violated not only human health but also the comfort zone between personal and social space by increasing spatial density.

A new perspective is necessary in future real estate and spatial planning which can incorporate flexible shifts of spatial functions and workstation configurations – and easily accommodate the concept of social distancing. Surprisingly, this approach also concurs with many workplace health and wellbeing strategies, including decentralising and breaking into smaller neighbourhood groups as well as orienting desks to face away from one another.

A recent epidemiologic study, using contact tracing for Covid-19 virus spread in a building, emphasises a frightening link between the high spread rate of the disease in a short period and a high-density, face-to-face oriented desk configuration of an open-plan office of a call centre in South Korea (see Figure 2).

Breaking down open-plan

Breaking the space into smaller neighbourhoods/pods with a physical boundary such as screens or planters, instead of one huge open space, is helpful in controlling the travel of the virus from human respiratory droplets spreading in the air from coughing, sneezing and even talking. Incorporating physical boundaries reinforces not only a feeling of inclusion but also visual and acoustic privacy. Using planters or similar items is also recommended since plants are the most wanted biophilic element in the workplace and also a contributor to reducing noise.

Social brain theory

When creating neighbourhoods in open-plan offices, it is important to understand human behaviours in both using spaces (proxemics) and maintaining social relationships (social brain theory). According to the social brain theory, humans have a cognitive limitation in maintaining social relationships beyond a certain number: up to 15 for special friendship, 50 for close network, and 150 for the maximum number of relationships people can maintain (called Dunbar’s number). Thus, it is a good idea to stick to less than 50 people in each neighbourhood.

From face-to-face to face-away

Orientating desks to face away, instead of facing toward, is another good method of controlling the virus by blocking the direct path of human droplet travel in the air. The desk orientation of facing each other is most popular in the contemporary workplace due to efficient power and IT distribution and space utilisation. However, this configuration adversely contributes not only to virus travel but also to noise issues in the workplace.

Noise has persistently been the number one cause of the highest complaints in the workplace with the majority of the source being people talking. The noise level is loudest in a face-to-face talking configuration and it becomes approximately 1.5 dB less noisy for each 30-degree rotation. Thus, the face-away desk configuration is a great way to fix noise issues in the workplace. In addition, the same principle of using sound screens, desirably six feet tall, to block noise transmission from a neighbouring person also applies to blocking the travel of droplets.

Establishing new protocols

 Lastly, it is important not to be so literal about 6 feet as a health and safety measure in the workplace because recent studies have shown the distance of droplet travel in the air far greater than 6 feet in computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulations. Current social distancing recommendation is based on early studies in 1930s and 40s.

To provide a true pandemic-resistant workplace, we will need to revisit the current regulations in various health-related areas in the built environment. Many regulations in indoor environmental quality criteria were originally established based on human comfort thresholds, not for a high level of health protection and prevention. For instance, the minimum indoor air quality regulations were originally to ventilate the human body properly, not to control toxins or even contagious virus spread.

This is a great time to revisit the regulations and establish better protocols for indoor environmental control for better health – not only in a pandemic but also general human health.

Source: Park SY, Kim YM, Yi S, Lee S, Na BJ, Kim CB, et al. Coronavirus disease outbreak in call center, South Korea. Emerg Infect Dis. 2020.

Young Lee PhD is a Visiting Research Associate in the Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering at University College London, director of the Innovative Workplace Institute in New York, and a lead researcher on the open source tool PROWELL©.
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