What is the future of the ‘pandemic safe’ open office?

The future of the ‘pandemic safe’ open office?

by Gaia Grant and Rajeshree Jadhav

Many organisations are now facing a dilemma: What to do with the open office now that the COVID19 pandemic has challenged the very notion of a communal office?

Contemporary open-plan designs had become the norm before the pandemic hit. Now the need for social distancing has meant we can feel threatened by the openness that was once so desirable.

So is there a new ideal office design?

Not an open and closed case

We have long maintained that there are pros and cons to different office environments.

On the one hand, the open office is designed to assist with collaboration and can encourage more of a community feel. A 2013 MIT study found that the number of interactions between employees reduced dramatically the further apart they were positioned.

Yet a 2018 study by Harvard Business School found that open offices can ironically also reduce face-to-face interaction by about 70% and increase email and messaging by around 50%.

Open offices can also be killers of creativity and productivity. In an open-plan office, workers are interrupted on average every 11 minutes by their co-workers. This can be a problem for modern workers given that it takes 25 minutes to get back into a creative and engaged workflow and perform to their full potential.

There are times when you really need to be able to focus on a task without distractions and to allow your mind to do it’s best creative work, and open offices aren’t necessarily conducive to that.

But in the same way that the movie theatre has survived despite the popularity of Netflix, many people are likely to want to continue to have personal contact in their work.

Getting the best of both worlds

Well-designed contemporary offices should have alcoves or private rooms and areas where people can go to focus on a task if needed — as well as meeting spaces where people can come ­together to collaborate comfortably as appropriate.

These flexible office spaces will be imperative for the ambidextrous organisation that is ready to adapt to rapid change. They will not focus on providing private spaces or shared collaborative spaces. They will allow for both.

The pandemic safe office of the future may need to include more:

  • transparent walls to still provide that feeling of openness while also giving more opportunities for safe focused work.
  • more flexibility in working from home and working in the office
  • more online digital options to connect to complement the in-person meeting opportunities
  • more rotational work, with smaller teams being scheduled to be in the office at different times to limit unnecessary extra contact
  • more space in the office – which has been labelled as the ‘six feet office’, and which will help us to feel we have enough personal space while still also enabling interpersonal contact

How is your organisation responding to the current realities?

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