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Contactless pathways and the return of the cubicle: The ‘new normal’​ in workplaces?

Contactless pathways and the return of the cubicle: The ‘new normal’​ in workplaces?

There’s no doubt that the current coronavirus crisis is going to change the way we live – but what about the way we work? Since the beginning of lockdown, millions of people up and down the country have been working from home. This has signalled a radical shift in the way we do business, with an enormous uptake in video conferencing, collaborative tools, and for some, more flexible working hours. However, eventually, many of us will return to the office. That said, the face of the modern workplace is likely to undergo a radical shift.

You may be surprised to learn that disease has always had a profound effect on architecture. For instance, it was cholera epidemics in the 19th century that prompted the introduction of the street grid, as the modernised sewage system demanded straighter, wider roads. Subsequently, it’s highly likely that COVID-19 will transform the contemporary office – but the question is how. Here, we explore some of the possibilities.

1. Expanding and contracting layouts

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s looking increasingly likely that governments will require there to be a minimum distance between workers. This could mean larger office spaces, larger lobbies, bigger tables and greater floorspace in lifts. Although this may all sound like a positive, it won’t necessarily mean sprawling, airy open-plan offices. In fact, social distancing may trigger a return to the office cubicle – albeit a roomier incarnation.

2. The end of the skyscraper

These changes to the interior of buildings will obviously have an impact on the types of new commercial developments we see popping up around our towns and cities. These broad spaces will require buildings to have a larger footprint, making high-rise towers more expensive to build and, therefore, less economically attractive to developers. As a result, we might see a shift to out-of-town office parks as opposed to inner-city skyscrapers.

3. Contactless controls

Contaminated surfaces are one of the key ways coronavirus spreads. To combat this threat, it’s likely that businesses are going to want to make their offices as ‘smart’ as possible. Essentially, this means if there’s anything that can be controlled via a personal smartphone or motionless sensor, it will be. From lift buttons to blinds, to ventilation systems, to the humble motion-sensor toilet flush, every measure will be made to ensure employees can navigate an office via touch-free “contactless pathways”.

4. Better ventilation

Perhaps a significant positive of the potential new COVID-safe workplace is improved ventilation. Politicians and public health experts have continuously emphasised that the spread of coronavirus is slower outdoors and in well-ventilated spaces. Therefore, we’re likely going to see airier offices with more openable windows and more efficient ventilation solutions. However, this can come at a financial and environmental cost: large-scale mechanical ventilation systems can be big energy guzzlers.

The workplace of the future, but not as you know it

The workplace has been modernising and adapting for decades, but the COVID-19 crisis is certain to add a twist in the tale. Whereas our vision of the future workplace once consisted of social, open-plan spaces, the socially-distanced office space is now likely to be the future. This will come with challenges and benefits for architects, engineers and office workers themselves – but only time will tell what exactly this future holds.