Will physical distancing be the end of the office?

Or will it become the place we’ve always wanted it to be? As companies weigh up the return of the office workforce, Katie Puckett talks to industry leaders about what Covid-19 will mean for workplace design as part of a WSP series on the post-pandemic office

Covid-19 has turned the world of work on its head, forcing through tectonic changes in the way we communicate and collaborate overnight. During lockdown and shelter-in-place orders, office occupiers have had to work remotely en masse – something many believed was impossible, or were reluctant to try. We have turned on our video cameras, and we have seen each other’s living rooms and worn-in hoodies and met families and Zoom-bombing pets.

We have asked ‘how are you?’ and meant it. We have new insights into what life must be like on the International Space Station, and into why actors dread working with children and animals. Whatever the future holds, it seems unlikely that we will ever look at our offices or our colleagues in the same way again. So, when we do finally go back, what kind of place do we want the workplace to be?

‘We have asked “how are you?” and actually meant it…’

WSP is looking in detail at how the office will evolve, from whether we could ever engineer a ‘virus-proof’ environment to how a working-from-home revolution will affect demand for commercial space. How can employers transform their spaces into FOMO-inducing, must-go destinations, and what role will smart technologies play in all of this? Will sustainability be boosted by the adaptations we’ve made, and what does a ‘flexible’ office mean as we consider resilience to future pandemics?

Catalyst for change already bubbling

‘This crisis is going to introduce some brand-new challenges, but it will also be the catalyst for change that was already bubbling and threatening to surface,’ says William Johnston, a senior director with WSP in Canada. ‘Some people desperately want the office back. Rather than now wanting to stay working from home, or fearing human engagement, many people are thirsting for the opportunity to get out of their homes and re-engage in a stimulating work environment. We need to enable them to do that.”

It won’t be possible to resume business-as-usual straight away. There is likely to be a phased return, with physical distancing measures needing to remain in place – perhaps until 2022, Harvard epidemiology experts have warned, or even 2025 in the absence of a vaccine or effective treatment. This will mean much less dense plans – for each person to sit 2 metres away from anyone else, it would take 12.5 sq m or 113 sq ft per person, far higher than typical space ratios today.

Can the post-virus office keep its soul?

The ideal contemporary workplace has come to be defined by flexible spaces and free movement, all geared to encourage as much interaction as possible. Now that every interaction is problematic, how can the post-COVID office keep its soul?

‘When we can work anywhere, we go to work for social interaction with others,’ says Jeremy Myerson, director of WORKTECH Academy and a design professor at the Royal College of Art in London. ‘In the last few years, the office has become a kind of social destination and designers have put great emphasis on bringing people together and creating a buzz with concepts like high-density open-plan working and agile scrums. If we have to design those elements out, that undermines quite a big rationale for why you go to an office.’

Indeed, office workers are so set in our ways that simply altering desk layouts is unlikely to be enough to maintain social distancing, warns Peggie Rothe, chief insights and research officer at Leesman, which has measured the experiences of over 740,000 employees in more than 4,900 workplaces around the world. ‘We know that it takes a lot to change people’s behaviour,’ she says. ‘Sometimes, when companies have tried to do a transformation to activity-based working, they’ve designed all these amazing spaces and people still don’t necessarily use them unless they really understand why.’

Anecdotally, Rothe has heard that keeping essential office workers apart is already challenging: ‘People don’t want to be spread out. Even though there’s heaps of space, they still cluster together. We can design in all the features we want to nudge people, but we can’t control behaviour.’

Experience at home shapes expectation

Leesman is applying its methodology to our improvised workplaces, conducting surveys to find out how working from home measures up using the same benchmarks. Rothe hopes to be able to publish the first findings within the next few weeks. ‘Without knowing what people’s experience has been at home, we don’t know what their expectation will be in terms of continuing to do some work from home, nor how their expectation towards the office may have changed when they come back,’ she explains.

‘We can see in our data that some of the best supported activities in the office are learning from others and informal social interaction. That’s what people are used to and what they are likely to expect from the office going forward, especially if it turns out that those two have been unsupported while working remotely. I would hate to see that, all of a sudden, we’re building massive cubicles or places where people are isolated from one another. I don’t think it’s wise, and I don’t think it would work.’

Furniture may not be able to change behaviour, but a crisis can. The big question is how people will feel about coming back together when they are finally allowed to do so. Heroically struggling into work with a cold will certainly be less socially acceptable. But, as we well know, you can be infectious without showing any symptoms.

Comfort at close proximity?

Will we ever be comfortable being in close proximity again? ‘Initially it’s only natural for there to be a heightened sense of caution around others,’ says Sara Silvonen, an employee wellbeing consultant at Great Place To Work UK. ‘Inevitably this creates a feeling of awkwardness and maybe even fear, which we’re sensing in the streets and supermarkets at the moment. In the workplace, a constant mental and emotional effort would be needed just to remember to distance, which in turn would not only make us feel less connected to our colleagues, but adversely impact productivity.’

Non-verbal cues such as facial expressions are integral to communication, she points out – that’s why enabling video on calls has become so important during the lockdown. Interpersonal relationships are one of the six key dimensions underlying employee wellbeing that Great Place To Work UK uses to assess organisations, so anything that disrupts that has the potential to negatively impact the employee experience.

Impact on workplace culture

The pandemic will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on workplace culture, says Dr Petrina Carmody, organisational psychologist and principal consultant at Great Place To Work UK. But what that impact is will be influenced by employers themselves: ‘The way that an organisation behaves now will have an impact on whether that organisation is thriving in a year or two’s time,’ she says. ‘Those that come out strongest will be the ones that truly listen to the needs, preferences and experiences of individuals and work to meet them.’

The way people are treated at work can have a much longer-term impact on their willingness to go over and above: ‘If I don’t feel supported or listened to, or that the right precautions are not in place, it may affect my productivity – I won’t be focused on my job. This is an opportunity for organisations to put people first. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s also the productive and profitable thing to do.’

Greater focus on collaboration?

Despite the need or desire for physical distancing measures, the post-Covid-19 office will have an even greater focus on collaboration, believes Nicole Hammer, a smart and connected building strategist at WSP’s ThinkBOLDR Innovation Center in Colorado. ‘In the long term, we’ll probably see more people continue to work at home more regularly and go to the office when they need to collaborate with someone or a group of people,’ she says. ‘You can facilitate some really amazing sessions via Skype, Teams, Zoom, and there’s a lot that can happen to enrich the dialogue, but to drive innovation and especially culture forwards, we still need to have face-to-face collaboration.’

What we shouldn’t do is go back to how everything was, says Kay Sargent, director of HOK’s global WorkPlace practice. ‘We’ve been handed a really unique, once-in-a-decade or maybe even once-in-a-career opportunity to think about what we really want the office to be, and about how we create spaces that are human-centric. If we end up going backwards, we’ll be doing everyone a disservice.’

Right now, what humans want most is safety, Sargent says, the foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: ‘If people don’t feel their basic needs are met, if the bottom of the pyramid is not solid, you cannot achieve the things that are higher up like collaboration, trust, bonding.’ She believes that if we miss the bigger picture, the building industry could face its ‘Kodak moment’.

‘If we miss the bigger picture, the workplace industry could face its ‘Kodak moment’….’

‘There are other things on the horizon that are going to change the way we work. What’s keeping most CEOs up at night these days is not how fast they can produce something, it’s whether they can innovate fast enough to even stay relevant. Airbnb, Uber, Amazon have changed their entire industries not because they could do something faster but because they changed the game. What we need to be focusing on is our ability to ideate and connecting people to be able to innovate.’

Traditional models transformed

Flexibility will be as important as safety, believes WSP’s William Johnston. ‘The workplace ought to be an environment that provides choice, freedom and comfort. We will need world-class IT, but also a culture and workflow that encourages a mobile environment where you are trusted to get the job done in a way that suits your personal disposition. The fundamentals of the office post Covid-19 will be trust, innovation and engagement – this crisis will start to initiate the performance-based culture that the workforce has been yearning for.’

Over the past decade, workspaces have become increasingly dense, with more and more people crammed into hot-desking or agile environments. ‘Now we are going to have to spread back out a little bit and find that happy medium between safety and working within the footprint that we have,’ says Nicole Hammer.

Away from the desks, other office traditions are likely to look very different. ‘Think about the break room – how do we make sure that they have a level of comfort as they are interacting in a relatively small space and sharing a refrigerator and a coffee machine?’ Instead of bringing in food from home, there might be more group lunch orders, suggests Hammer. ‘That might foster more community – because when the food arrives everyone’s going to stop at the same time versus at staggered intervals. Finding those little opportunities, those little cultural wins, will be really fascinating. Working from home has given people a little bit of comfort in letting their guard down, in being exposed and being who they are a little more authentically.’

Rise of the outdoor meeting

Meetings too could become opportunities for health and wellness. Rather than cramming into any available space, she thinks people will seek out larger, more open spaces to meet. ‘There probably won’t be a whole lot more five-person meetings in a tiny little huddle room. Things will happen in a café or multifunction area instead,’ says Hammer. Or maybe even outside: ‘One thing we’ve been doing at our office a lot lately, if we have a meeting where we’re just looking to brainstorm and we don’t need to be taking notes furiously, we’ll walk outside. It’s a great way to get fresh air and it definitely gets the creative juices flowing.’

Improving air quality, circulation and filtration will be a top priority in a post-pandemic world, but people may still feel anxious about being in confined spaces with many other people and want to be able to easily access the outdoors. This is a feature of many newer work environments designed around wellness, and Hammer expects the trend to increase.

Killing outmoded office concepts

Jeremy Myerson of WORKTECH Academy thinks that the pandemic will kill outmoded office concepts once and for all: ‘This crisis will signal the end of the modern industrial office of fixed infrastructure, presenteeism, productivity as a machine output and a very strong demarcation between home and work.’ The new model will be an evolved version of the more recent networked office, with an acceleration of remote and flexible working, and a greater focus on health and hygiene, wellbeing and safety – ‘of treating people in a better way and using the workplace as a tool for recruitment’.

There may also be knock-on effects from having to take more care as we walk around, says Nicole Hammer. ‘I do think that one of the unintentional things that might come from this is that people learn to slow down, and maybe be a little more thoughtful and intentional. We are just so rushed as a culture. But now. if five people are making their lunch in the cafe, I might wait for that to clear. I’m not going to be so stressed when it comes to making the elevator. I’ll be more patient.’


Katie Puckett is a freelance writer and editor, and co-founder of Wordmule. This article is part of a series on the post-pandemic office by global professional services firm WSP

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