Office design & COVID-19.


There is no ignoring the fact that Covid-19 has touched everyone’s lives. We’ve become used to some of the changes, but others perhaps are harder to adjust to. We seem to find ourselves, at least for the moment, in a situation that changes at an ever increasing rate. Individuals, families and the world are trying to carve a path based on new information and thinking that appears to confront us on an almost daily basis.

With all the changes that have come and gone, we seem to be entering a new phase. This is a phase where we’re trying to discover what the ‘new normal’ is. With our experience in work place design we wanted to reflect on this and take some time out to put together a coherent source of information that we hope will be useful as we take the important steps back to the office. As designers we’re not experts in disease transmission, so this information is based on our opinion and expertise in the field of office design.

The ‘new’ wellness in the workplace

A number of months ago we spent some time putting together another source of information. Its focus was around the ever increasing drive towards ‘workplace wellness design’. It spoke
about ways to improve and promote mental health and wellness in the office. More specifically, given our expertise, it spoke about how design could be used to help promote mental health and wellness. Thereby improving staff retention, creativity and productivity. We now need to look at widening this scope. Wellness in the workplace has new meaning and importance. It now needs to add hygiene to its field of focus.

So why do we need to return to the office?

For the first week or two, working from home (at least for a few of us) was probably a bit of a novelty. We may now find ourselves missing the office environment. A space where we can come together as a team and work coherently. As a business we are only too aware of the importance of this and the ability to bring people together, align our priorities and be productive. This is exactly the reason why we don’t believe we’re entering a new age of home working. The truth is that communication, chance meetings and aligning goals create new ideas and better ways of doing things. It drives our businesses forward and in-turn the economy, and all of this is much easier and fluid when we can occupy the same space.

The question then, is how do we do this in a way that is safe and puts employees at greater ease. It’s about more than putting up screens and hand sanitising stations (although important). The human aspect must not be overlooked.

What we’ve learnt

So across the country business took on board government instruction and guidance and sent their employees home. Organisations put in place new systems and new ways of communicating between collaborators so work could continue. We followed a similar course of action. However, during this time we became aware of a lack of PPE in NHS hospitals. With our workshop capabilities it meant that we were in a unique position to help out. We were able to produce and give away a large number of face shields with the help of generous donations from our clients and the public. All of this was fantastic, but it meant we had to put in place a number of changes to the office and workshop quickly in order to keep staff safe.

Due to having to implement early safety precautions we’ve learned from our own personal experience, as well as the experience of others, how to best proceed and retrofit a working environment for this new situation.

We need to retrofit our offices and we need to do it in a way that will not allow infection transmission within a workplace to shut things down, damage brands and their ability to attract new talent. At the same time the solutions cannot cause a breakdown in community, creativity and productivity. This is not a fix.

The solutions we have implemented in our own business, together with those we have researched, covers furniture, materials, technology, behaviour protocols and planning. Here is the roadmap for the coming months as we see it.

Retrofitting and working with what we have

When we shut the door on our offices and workplaces before setting up shop at home we closed that door on spaces that are probably open plan, designed to be high density with shared spaces and hot desking. Places that were designed to be intimate and harbour collaboration as well as bring people together. They created a stronger culture, new ways of working and a competitive advantage. It goes without saying that in the post Covid-19 world this now leaves us with a problem. Workplaces were never designed to fight against the spread of disease.

We need to retrofit what we have based on a common sense approach. We believe it needs to tackle these three areas:

  • Density
  • Design
  • Behaviour


– Space

For the majority of organisations they will be looking at getting things going at partial capacity. Bringing back employees in waves, or in shift patterns. Our research suggests organisations will be limiting their return to around 30% staff capacity. This allows for social distancing to become a practical reality in an office space.

Going forward, things need to be configureable. But for now, with fewer staff entering the workplace during this initial wave, workstations need to be kept further apart. Removing chairs and spreading people at two metre distances is essential. Automation for desk booking is important to help with the reduction in usable desk space. Sensors under desks, or mounted into ceilings will be key in preventing people travelling to work when no desk is available.

In communal areas, furniture (unless it allows for physical distancing) should be marked for single use. Seating should be spaced two metres apart and a reduction in soft furniture should be adopted if it cannot be cleaned/disinfected.

– Smaller meetings

Protocols need to be put in place outlining how many people are allowed to occupy an enclosed space. Keeping in-line with the social distancing guidance, closed spaces like meeting rooms should be clearly signed to instruct how many individuals should occupy a particular area. The room also needs to be configured to support physical distancing. This will naturally result in smaller face-to-face meetings. However, with conferencing technology, this is perhaps not so much of a problem.

– Communal areas

Communal areas naturally need to adapt. As previously touched on, soft furniture like sofas should be removed, or their numbers reduced and all seating should be spaced apart based on social distancing guidelines. In addition to this, due to the inherent nature of these areas, hygiene is paramount. Communal spaces need to be cleaned. Tables and lighting need to be wiped down with disinfectant before and after use and not just by cleaning staff.


– Divisions

Adding screens and dividers is important. It not only serves as a visual reminder throughout the workplace that distancing is fundamental to everyone’s wellbeing, but is absolutely essential when the minimum distancing can’t be adhered to for practical reasons. Adding screens in front, behind and to the side of people will help mitigate the spread of infection. The higher, wider and the easier the screens are to clean the better.

– Layout

A lot of offices have standard linear approaches to desk layouts. Where possible it would be advisable to reconfigure freestanding desks so that sitting face-to-face with a colleague is mitigated against. Rotating desks 90 degrees in different directions would be one way to achieve this. However, this may not be a practical solution in the short term due to power and data point placements, available space, or the type of desk systems being used. Spreading people out and adding in screens may prove to be a better retrofit solution.

– Flow

Flow, as we’ve seen being adopted in the retail environment, should not be overlooked. Using visual cues like tape to suggest appropriate distancing between staff members can be utilised to improve distancing measures. One way traffic should be adopted. This is especially important in narrow corridors and hallways. Arrows marked out on the floor or walls for example would serve as a simple solution to communicate this.

– Low touch & no touch

This will inevitably be highly important. Automatic doors and lighting, if not already installed will become the norm. For the moment however, where these solutions are not yet in place, a common sense approach will need to be adopted. One bottle neck in this area will be lifts. Not only because of the confined space, but also the need to push buttons. We will probably see greater voice technology integrated in the future, but for the moment one solution to reduce risk would be to rely more on stairs. Perhaps floors 1-4 for example could use stairwells, whist floors 5+ could use lifts.


– Visual cues

Well designed nudging (reminders) throughout the office space communicating social distancing, hand washing etc are key. Visual cues like labelling that can be branded and applied to floors and walls, including arrows to direct one-way traffic are paramount. Signage to indicate maximum persons allowed into a confined space like a meeting room will also mitigate risk. Perhaps one thing that could be adopted, to serve as a visual cue and help with cultivating the right mindset, would be to convert the reception desk. Perhaps this area could become less about checking in and more of a first port of call where people can take off their coat and make use of hand sanitisers before entering the main workspace.

– Hotelling

Hot desking (at least for the time being) will have to stop. An alternative to this would be to have a single user per day. This would need to be backed up by a clean on arrival and clean on departure policy reinforced through visual cues.

– Cleanliness

Cleaning needs to be made highly visible. Employees need to feel secure in the fact that they can see areas being cleaned multiple times a day. This also translates into hand sanitising stations and cleaning supplies being readily available. This promotes a culture of personal hygiene cultivated through visual cues and the availability of cleaning products. Desks being clear from clutter may also need to be adopted as another cultural shift as it allows for easy cleaning. The wearing of masks being integrated into company culture could also become the norm. They can be used when people attend face-to-face meetings, have conversations, or move throughout the office.

These are some of the ways existing office infrastructure can be made to better serve users in the present as well as the near future. Other areas of company policy might need to be re-thought, such as company policy on toilets – single occupancy for example. The immediate challenge however requires a common sense approach that makes use of what we can adapt for ‘the now’.

Future reconfiguration and reinvention

Our expertise is design and we believe this is one of the best tools we have to change behaviour, reduce the risk of transmission and improve peoples’ mental health and well-being. Beyond changes in traffic flow, interior architecture such as screens and revised space planning we may see other changes to office design in the mid-to-distant future. There is likely to be a lot of talk about how the world will change, with all sorts of predictions being made. Historically though, predictions usually miss the mark somewhat.

That said…

Here is a prediction – we do not see the open plan office concept as dead. It does have draw backs and has been receiving pushback and criticisms for some time. But, if open plan space design is done well it can provide a choice of working environments for employees, harbour collaboration and can be social distancing friendly. The simple truth is density and flexibility are important to organisations; that means open plan offices are here to stay.

Beyond this however, we will see an increase in design that uses materials chosen for their disinfectant properties. There will be lots of clorex cleans (bleach sprayed after hours) which, overtime may degrade carpet and furnishings. Materials that won’t degrade with continued cleaning will be increasingly important. We’ll also see a greater emphasis on collaboration and communication technologies, with an increased drive to integrate these into the design of office spaces. We’ll also see wider adoption of hands-free technologies.

We believe though, that the biggest change we’ll see being adopted, with even greater momentum, is design for flexibility and wellbeing.

This isn’t a new idea, but it is one that could perhaps gain more traction. Many of us, whilst we are aware of the inconveniences, are becoming accustomed to some aspects of working from home. This could leave a lasting impression. It may result in more flexible working environments that are better suited to adapt and reconfigure, helping with transmission rates and in turn creating new ways of working. This will support peoples well-being; improving mental health, productivity and creativity.

For the most part however, we’re going to go back to the way we were. It’s because ultimately it’s the most comfortable. We do hope though that a few positive changes do remain and that the ‘workplace wellness design’ we’ve been advocating continues to be adopted as the ‘new normal’.

For more information or help please feel free to get in touch.

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