Rethinking Office Design for The Post-Pandemic World

Numerous offices have been left empty during lockdown as employees switch to remote working. Credit: kate.sade on Unsplash

Lockdowns are lifting, but many workers are not returning to their offices, and when they do come in, their needs are changing. So what does this mean for office design? Alex Love asks office design specialists how they expect designs to change and what challenges it will present

Offices around the world have been largely empty ever since the coronavirus struck. Yet at some point in the near-future, businesses will need to decide exactly how they use their office spaces.

What’s different now is that instead of these decisions being taken solely by senior management, it is the views and needs of staff that are dictating events.

“Historically, everyone must come into the office – ‘I must go to work’, ‘that is my place of work’. And that was led a lot by management, but staff are leading what's happening now, which is really interesting,” says Claire Elliott, group technical design director at office design-build firm Oktra.

Since lockdown began, the thinking has swung from abandoning the office model completely, to trying to figure out more effective use of existing areas.

“In the first couple of weeks, people were talking about an office revolution and no one's going to want office space anymore and we can all work from home. But it was followed in the next couple of weeks working out how we can make offices pandemic-proof,” says Charles Bettes, managing director of gpad London, an architecture and design practice.

“Then in the last month, people are getting ready to go back to the office again and actually considering how we want to work and the working processes that we're going to have. Maybe people will do more production work, if you like, from home - but more teamwork and collaboration within the office,” he adds.

Rethinking the office space

Time spent working from home has given businesses the chance to think more about what they want to do with their office space.

“We need to understand how the organisations will work, what kind of animal they are. Because at the end of the day, the point is that the space delivered to a group or an organisation needs to be configured and formed with the way it’s worked in. It's not a matter of quantities, it's a matter of qualities. It's a matter of options that you offer, the flexibility that you offer,” says Patricia Viel, co-founder of multi-disciplinary design firm Antonio Citterio Patricia Viel.

Companies are seeking ways to make their office use smarter and optimise the time when staff are on site. According to gpad London’s Bettes, a client in the City of London is one example of a business re-evaluating its needs.

“They’ve found that everyone really, really wants to work from home, and they’re not really sure about coming back to the office. But our initial discussions have been around: ‘What is the office going to be?’” he says.

“ Our initial discussions have been around: ‘What is the office going to be?’ 

“It's going to be a place where they can welcome visitors. And it's going to be a place where they can hold their team gatherings. So whereas before, you might have a team-building externally, away from the office, maybe that actually takes place in the office now.”

Covid-19 has forced employees to change how they work to an extent that would have been unthinkable 12 months ago.

“People are proving that they can adapt and change, but they're not realising quite how much they've done it,” adds Elliott. “Change and adaptation will still be a challenge. And also the trust of people working from home will also be a challenge, because there are definitely people that need to come back into the office because that's when they work best. And there are definitely people that are working best from home because they can concentrate more. So trust will be an issue.”

She says that Oktra has kept its offices open during lockdown to provide support to staff that may have difficulties with working from home.

After lockdown ends, it has been predicted that offices will be used mainly for collaborations and meeting clients. Credit: Angela Bishop.

Technological challenges for remote offices

Technology has made it possible for many employees to work remotely throughout the pandemic and enabled various businesses to continue operating close to normal. However, despite using video calls more than ever before, this means of communication has not been found as effective for collaboration or management of teams as being in the same office.

“It’s part of going to the office to meet people and do things that you can't do from home. I have a call from home and I can produce a drawing from home, but what I can't do is sit around and have a collaborative ideas session,” adds Bettes.

“ We work a lot with drawings and I think the technology is great; it's allowed us to really move projects forwards. 

“We work a lot with drawings and I think the technology is great; it's allowed us to really move projects forwards. But it is difficult to explain certain things over Zoom call, which you could do with a bit of paper and a pen in front of you.”

Another challenge with remote working has been the unreliability of some home internet connections. The level of technical support is not what it would be in an office. If something goes wrong at home, there is unlikely to be anyone around who can fix the issue quickly.

“I think a lot of people are looking forward to getting back to the office to do bits of work, because it's a nice environment. I read an article a couple of weeks ago about the office being a great leveller in terms of internet provision and facilities,” says Bettes.

“I'm sure all of us have had points over the last three months where you're on a call and you try to explain something and the internet dies, which is really frustrating. So I think the office does offer all of the things you need to do your job.”

Greater use of communal areas is expected once office workers return, with open spaces more appealing than smaller rooms. Credit: Angela Bishop.

Changes to offices post-coronavirus

When employees eventually get back to their offices, they are unlikely to see any major alterations. Any changes will likely be on a smaller scale and mainly concern hygiene and social distancing, such as hand santiser stations and one-way systems in the busier areas.

After such a long absence, some workers may be understandably anxious about returning, especially with the threat of a deadly disease still looming.

According to Elliott, the flurry of announcements from the UK Government detailing changes to guidance has also caused some confusion.

“ It's very simple: social distancing rules, and hygiene. Those two are the key guidelines. 

“It's very simple: social distancing rules, and hygiene. Those two are the key guidelines. Our stance is: keep it simple, cut through all the rubbish, and let's get on with life,” she summarises.

And when it comes to office design, there is a belief Covid-19 has just sped-up changes that were already happening within the industry.

“It’s accelerated workplace design. People are saying: ‘is it changing that much?’ We're saying: ‘no, we were heading that way anyway’ – biophilia, wellness, more open spaces, more agile spaces. We were going that way, Covid has just accelerated that thinking process,” adds Elliott.

Covid-19 will see the introduction of one-way systems in offices on areas such as stairs. Credit: Angela Bishop.

Could physical offices begin to disappear?

To deal with the economic shockwave caused by the coronavirus, companies will likely be paying closer attention to balance sheets and assessing their options. With fewer staff working full-time in the office being a realistic scenario, an obvious course of action may be to reduce some office areas when the opportunity arises.

“It might be a rebalancing of what I call the old-fashioned back-office environments. The desking and the work area may shrink a little, but actually the client-facing, the collaboration, the meeting zones may increase in size because companies believe that that it's when we come together as humans that's the bit that's really important,” suggests Elliott.

In addition, any immediate mass migration of businesses to new premises is doubtful, particularly as a lot of companies have time left to run on multi-year office leases. As a result of the pandemic, shorter leases on offices are more likely in future.

“ I think people will actually consider what they do with the space more, rather than say we don't need as much. 

“I don’t think many people will be moving right now. I think people will actually consider what they do with the space more, rather than say we don't need as much. I think people will use that space for different things,” adds Bettes.

When leases do come up for renewal, businesses based in city centres will have to weigh up whether the costs justify remaining in the same central location when it is not filled with staff every day, or if it is a more cost-effective option to move either a smaller location or further out of town.

It is also possible that we will see even greater use of hireable hub spaces and virtual offices for meetings and collaborations. However, if there is one thing the lockdown has highlighted, it is the importance of regular human interaction; and offices provide vital spaces for this.