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Does coronavirus signal the end of the open-plan office?

Does coronavirus signal the end of the open-plan office?

Up until this moment, the open-plan office was considered to be the workspace that all companies should aspire to. This philosophy was championed by tech giant Google; they believed that making a workplace that was more open and collaborative was key to employee motivation. They facilitated this through their so-called “casual collision” set up, which encourages chance encounters between employees in social spaces. This theory was backed by behavioural science, which suggests that collaborative working boosts employee productivity by 15%.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has turned this vision of the open, collaborative office on its head. Obviously, the very nature of social distancing strongly discourages any notion of “casual collision”. Instead, people should actively avoid each other, and if contact is absolutely necessary, they should stand two metres apart. Certainly, this will radically change the face – and indeed direction – of the modern workplace. But how can architects, interior designers and employers make a workplace COVID-safe while trying to preserve the productivity gains of collaboration?

1. A breath of fresh air

Well-ventilated spaces are key to limiting the transmission of coronavirus. Throughout the pandemic, it’s been well-documented that the virus spreads faster in cramped areas like public transport, crowded rooms, or spaces where multiple people touch the same surface. In contrast, in well-ventilated spaces, or indeed outdoors, the spread of the virus slows. Therefore, ventilation is key to the COVID-safe workspace.

The good news is that ventilation is also a key driver of productivity. According to a study conducted by the School of Public Health at Harvard University, stale, stuffy air in office spaces was a key suppressor of productivity. The study states that although sophisticated ventilation systems can be costly, it’s more than made up for in the productivity gains.

2. Biophilia

Even though the socially distanced office might signal the end of a social workplace, there are other design-driven ways that companies can recover the associated productivity losses. For example, biophilia, or our innate desire to be close to nature, has a significant impact on employee productivity. Research suggests that green space or plants in offices can drive productivity by up to 15%. This theory is supported by another tech giant, Apple, whose newest complexes have their very own Apple Parks.

3. Look into the light

A study conducted by office supplier Staples suggested that 80% of workers said that good light in their workspace was important to them. A further third said that better light would make them happier at work, and as we all know, a happy worker is a productive worker. Light is often overlooked in offices, and when it comes to overall well-being, good light is essential. Poor lighting can lead to numerous negative physical and mental health effects, including eye strain, fatigue, and in some cases, increased stress.

If the social, open-plan workplace is indeed a thing of the past, employers certainly need to look at lighting. In the COVID-safe workplace, this should fit neatly into architects’ plans for ventilation; by designing buildings with more accessible windows, businesses can ensure their offices are light and airy, and their workers productive.

Making the best of it

The coronavirus crisis is undoubtedly going to transform the way we work. The move away from the social, open-plan office is more than likely to have an impact on employees’ experience of the workplace. However, there are design solutions. By making offices lighter, airier, and greener, employers can create a workspace that’s beneficial for employees’ health – and not only from a COVID-safe perspective.

 

 

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