It is a concept that has been around since the 1950s when it originated in Germany (although some put its year of origin even earlier); in the decades since, there has been enough research to show that its cons far exceed its pros; yet it has lingered on.
It, of course, is the open office, and the coronavirus disease, Covid-19, may have finally killed it.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe in February, most workplaces around the country (and the world) began to implement rules among employees to avoid clusters, maintain physical distance, wear masks, sanitise hands. and avoid biometric entry. Many put in place strict deep cleaning protocols. And finally, all suddenly discovered the merits of WFH (work from home).
Once the lockdown is lifted and at least some employees look to rejoin work — many will work from home; for instance, India’s largest software services firm Tata Consultancy Services has said that up to 75% of its global workforce will work from home by 2025 — one of the most important questions facing organisations is simply this: Can the open office plan, marked by a lack of cubicles such that all employees are required to sit or work in clusters, still make sense in a world ravaged by the ongoing pandemic?
The straightforward answer? No
The open office was aimed at improving collaboration and proficiency among employees. By the turn of the century, and after a few decades of cubicles, the open office became the norm. Different types of furniture, which demarcated different spaces of work, was a distinct feature of the open office floor plan: hubs for private meetings, longer tables around which larger groups could gather for meetings or scribbles, single or two-seater sofas for more private conversations and glass-walled meeting rooms that also offered the same transparency that marked the rest of the office. Work desks became workstations where clusters of employees would be seated, often sharing resources such as lamps and telephones, and that great luxury of the modern workplace — coffee machines.
In a post-Covid-19 world, this translates into zero social distancing, not to mention multiple shared surfaces. In other words, heightened risk of transmission of Sars-Cov-2. Sorry, but that’s how everyone thinks now.
“We are looking at a complete 180-degree shift [in offices]. The whole premise of how offices have been designed has been about collaboration and people coming together. Now the premise about people coming to office is about social distancing. So the whole focus will be on how to get people to interact in such a way. The communal spaces that the open office plan allowed for will not be possible anymore. It won’t be possible for three people to sit on a sofa and have a discussion,” said Aparna Piramal, author and columnist on business and design.
Neetish Sarda, founder of Smartworks, a firm that offers co-working spaces across nine cities in India, said that his company instituted workplace measures on March 20 itself, five days before the nationwide lockdown was announced. The measures, which included disinfecting all surfaces and floors, temperature checks using an infrared thermometer at entry points, placement of sanitizer bottles at “high touchpoints” and emphasis on hand wash/sanitization while entering office spaces,mandatory masks , sanitising packages, physical distancing , and preventing sharing of dishes or drinks and eatables, will also be enforced once the lockdown is lifted, he said.
Will companies redesign the office space altogether?
US-based furniture maker Steelcase recently released a report-cum-catalogue titled Navigating What’s Next: The post-Covid workspace has some thoughts on that. “Planning for now also means retrofitting the workplace, based on a common-sense approach that adheres to governmental and global health guidelines, including physical distancing, adding barriers, cleaning and safety measures,” it said.
“Work environments in the future will require reinvention as science-based evidence and emerging technologies offer new solutions. Planning paradigms of the past were driven by density and cost. Going forward they need to be based on the ability to adapt easily to possible economic, climate and health disruptions,” the report added.
Some of the more immediate suggestions it offers includes reconfiguring desks, or pulling them apart to reduce face-to-face orientation, which can be achieved for instance, by turning workstations through 90-degree angles which would prevent workers from working directly across or behind one another. It also suggests using open spaces for meetings of more than five people as well as leveraging flexible furniture with movable whiteboards and screens to create boundaries.
Shields between people — such as those made of material like plexiglass or plastic — will make a comeback, Carol Bartz, former CEO of Yahoo! Inc., recently told a magazine. “I think people are going to want protection, plexiglass or whatever. There will also be more teleconferencing, absolutely less flying — you will teleconference with customers,” the longtime Silicon Valley chief executive told Marketwatch in an interview.
Bimal Patel, director of Ahmedabad-based HCP Design, Planning and Management Private Limited — the architecture firm mandated to develop New Delhi’s Central Vista — said that it was too early to think of lasting design changes.
“The most interesting thing that has emerged out of the present crisis is not so much this idea that we may need to make lasting [design] changes in the long run but that a lot of people, particularly in the service industries like our own, have discovered the potential of working online. We [at HCP] have discovered that there is quite a lot of stuff that we can manage to do (without coming into the office). [Of course,] when we do come, it will be because we need to sit around a table, and draw on the same drawing, or stand around a drawing and discuss it. There is work that we all need to do that will bring us close together.”
In the short run, he said, the important thing for firms to figure out is how many people can actually stay away from the office so as to reduce the number of people coming in to work.
Though Patel may not agree with this, his remark highlights a larger question — forget open offices, do we even need offices?
Around the world too, organisations are beginning to rethink work schedules of employees to stagger their return, and enable more people to work from home. Global commercial real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield is testing a design concept called the Six Feet Office to help employees stay six feet apart. This includes signage that helps people recognise distance, usage of disposable desk covers, and ensuring that people walk only clockwise through the office space to minimize bumping into each other.
A PricewaterhouseCoopers pulse survey among 305 US companies published on April 27, found that more than three-quarters (77%) were putting new safety measures in place, while others said they were taking steps to promote physical distancing, such as reconfiguring workspaces (65%). More than half the companies (52%) were planning on changing shifts and alternating crews to reduce exposure, while 49% of the companies said they were planning to make remote work a permanent option for roles that allow it.
Indian furniture maker Godrej Interio has a four-person team, called the Ergonomics and Workspace Research Cell, whose mandate is to study issues commonly faced in offices — like noisy colleagues — and publish findings that eventually guide their product design team. When the global pandemic hit and offices around the globe and India began to close down, it began to study the challenges of working from home.
“Our aim is to reach 10,000 [respondents] so the research is still ongoing. We asked questions like, what are the issues people face; how can we help them stay productive? Our focus is on the health and well-being of people,” said Sameer Joshi, an associate vice president in the marketing division of Godrej Interio who leads the team. Based on the findings, a “work from home” range of 40 furniture items will be rolled out once factories open, Joshi said.
“We are getting a lot of interest from corporates to supply furniture for home. So we’re taking these learnings and quickly adapting [them] to reconfigure [existing] home furniture [models]. Indian homes are denser, there’s often no space for a separate office. Same piece of furniture is used by multiple users, unlike the office. The solution has to be flexible enough so that it adapts to different users,” Joshi said.
At a time when the world stares at yet another economic recession, it is crucial to ask whether firms will make such additional investments in office spaces or infrastructure to enable people to work from home. Piramal said it would be in their own interest to do so.
“For the first time, many organisations will have to think of their employees being in a kind of life and death situation [inside the office]. In most industries, you don’t think about this, unless you’re in the manufacturing space or in the armed forces. So, if you view it from that perspective, then certain investments have to be made. [Of course] somebody has to bear that cost. Maybe that cost may come out of employee salaries,” she said.
Or they may simply come out of the savings companies hope to make from rent payments.
(With inputs from Abhishek Behl)