Open Office 2.0: How COVID Is Transforming Design Norms

Over the last several years, the open plan office has gotten a lot of pushback. People wanted their individual offices back, or even just cubicles – anything to stop sitting in big, noisy rooms. Add to the equation elements like hot desking in which staff don’t have permanent desks and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. But then COVID-19 struck and everyone went home. Getting staff back into the office, it became clear, would require revamping the office to provide more privacy. Unfortunately, retrofitting an entire office is expensive, leading companies to consider a wide variety of new workplace options.

Putting Productivity First

Pre-pandemic, when companies considered the problems caused by open office plans, their major concern was productivity. Workers complained the open office plan was interfering with their ability to focus, which was why redesigns focused on removing distractions to increase productivity. Some put cubicle dividers back in and reintroduced permanent desks, some moved into new buildings with more conventional offices, and others introduced signal systems to keep workers from being interrupted mid-task. Still, most workers were still stuck hoping that noise canceling headphones and sheer grit would help them focus despite the bustle surrounding them.

Social Distancing Systems

Updating office spaces to help staff focus was a great first goal – until workplaces suddenly found themselves contending with the issue of virus spread and the need for social distancing. After all, distraction is frustrating, but in the average office, it’s not unsafe. People sitting in an unwalled, enclosed space in the middle of a pandemic – that’s too dangerous.

The most affordable and most common way that businesses are dealing with the need to separate employees is by installing glass barriers between desks, at points of public interface, and anywhere else where people would ordinarily come face-to-face. Such barriers have gone up everywhere from customer service desks to grocery stores and restaurants, but they’re a limited solution, and they aren’t design- or productivity-oriented. They’re just meant to get people back to work, which is enough for now.

New Construction For A New Paradigm

Given what experts are predicting about COVID-19 and future potential pandemics, many architects and property developers are considering how they can design workspaces for the future – specifically, workplaces that integrate both post-open office wisdom on productivity and safe areas for collaborative work. The results are exciting and push the limits of how we think about office space.

One example of design for the post-COVID workplace is the new Stockdale Capital Partners’ campus in San Diego, which factors in a number of these new considerations. Units included in the 700,000 square feet of office space are designed to be larger relative to staff capacity to allow for social distancing, while the overall structure emphasizes wellness amenities like touchless access and improved air filtering, and the campus includes large amounts of outdoor seating. Because the project didn’t go into construction until the start of the pandemic, the design firm was able to pivot quickly to integrate new features.

Outdoor seating, like that found at the Stockdale Capital Partners’ campus, is likely to play a large role in new construction, particularly in more temperate locations, as a valuable alternative to both stuffy offices and risky meeting rooms. Because the risk of virus transmission is substantially reduced when outdoors, even urban construction will need to find ways to open up outdoor space, whether through balconies, terraces, or rooftop office spaces.

The combined need to address open office-related problems indoors and to expand outdoor work options is likely to produce a surge in new construction for those companies committed to going back to centralized workspaces post-COVID, but businesses should consider their next steps with care. Many experts have predicted that the majority of white-collar workers will remain remote in the long-term, with the remainder opting for coworking spaces or split-offices instead of traditional corporate suites. Though innovative designs with an emphasis on outdoor options are exciting, they’re likely to be the refuse of tech startups and other high-end operations, not a replacement for the average offices that emptied out when the pandemic began.

Anna Johansson is the founder and CEO of Johansson Consulting where she works with businesses to create marketing and PR campaigns.

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