November 29, 2020

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Sean Pearson

We’re now well into what the New York Times called Europe’s “living-with-the-virus” phase. What that means in the meantime for places of work will vary by industry, but that hasn’t stopped employers of various stripes making interesting and novel changes to accommodate social distancing and reduce the spread of Covid-19.

Regardless of when – or indeed if – the majority of the UK’s indoor workforce returns to their normal work places, the UK’s offices are already starting to look and feel different in ways- both subtle and obvious. And organisations with reputations to protect are keen to be seen making these improvements by the public.

The end of Perspex?

In the early stages of the pandemic, the humble plexiglass or perspex screen became a visual metaphor for ‘we’re doing our best here’. You’ll have seen these large see-through screens protecting staff working on checkouts in shops, chemists and take-aways. They even put them in the House of Commons.

They made people feel safer, and the organisations installing them appear to be doing something. And the importance of optics can’t be overstated; visible compliance from large organisations communicates a required behaviour change from customers and stakeholders.

The actual effectiveness of the humble screen remains up for debate. A number of workplace outbreaks have occurred in places where employers had installed screens. Most of these were linked to an absence of mask-wearing.

The problem with screens is that while they may encourage basic compliance with social distancing, they can also lead to a false sense of security. Screens protect people to a degree from airborne droplets, but that’s not the only way the virus spreads.

It’s unlikely these screens will become a feature of the post-Covid office.

Touch-free from door to desk

As we know, the virus can be transmitted via surfaces. Building owners are already implementing fixes such as a kickplates for opening doors and disposable lift button pressers to help people get safely from the front desk to their own desk, hands-free.

These low disruption interventions  are crucial in reducing potential contamination but are unignorable visual cues that will remind us that things are different now. Expect hands-free alternatives to be retrofitted wherever possible, from printers, to kitchens, and bathrooms.

The writing on the wall

One overlooked area that a number of employers should be seeking to improve is sign postage.

You may not have noticed this yet, but a lot of the signage in your place of work is ad-hoc and inaccessible. Closed bathrooms, re-routed traffic flows, lift capacity changes– 9 times out of 10 these will be announced on a sheet of A4 in lettering that can only be read from a few inches away.

"Out of order" sign from The Library of Birmingham
“Out of order” sign postage from The Library of Birmingham.

Employers will need to up their semiotics game if they want to avoid unnecessary clustering. Inaccessible signage encourages people to walk up to surfaces like occupied meeting room doors, out of order coffee machines and lifts, before breathing on them and walking off.

Employees returning to work should demand improved signage, with larger letters and clearer instructions written in plain English.

The end of the ‘cool’ office?

Open plan offices receive a lot of criticism, but the available science suggests that they can be safer than cubicles or buildings with multiple smaller rooms, provided that the original principles of ‘open plan’ as envisioned by Frank Lloyd Wright are upheld.

Expect lots of natural light, improved ventilation and the absence of clutter to characterise the office of the near future.

Example of a workplace with a good open plan
Example of a workplace with a good open plan

This has to do with the amount of floor space gained from not having as many doors or walls. The extra ‘footprint’ enables better distancing and less congestion at traditional pinch points like entrances and breakout spaces.

Example of a workplace with a bad open plan
Example of a workplace with a bad open plan

Foot traffic management, desk positioning, ‘hostile’ design that discourages lingering will all play a role in making workplaces more resilient against viral spread

How does this fit with the trend for quirky Instagrammable workplaces?

In a recent job advert, car classifieds website Autotrader proudly announced:

“We’ve worked hard to create a COVID-secure space office, which includes our desks being spaced out more than 2m apart, a one-way travel system around the office and increased cleaning and hygiene measures”.

Autotrader is famous for having ‘wacky’ office design. It’s going to be essential for recruiters to be able to prove that their workplaces are safe. And if that means dispensing with the traditional accoutrements of the ‘fun office’ (think foosball, hammocks and ball pits) in order to free up space, then so be it. People will soon come to value space over toys.

Tools and hacks

It seems like every inventor and innovator on earth has been fixating on the pandemic. Some innovations have been fairly predictable, like capacity management apps to make sure there’s a limit on people in a given space or office. Other innovations seem more like science fiction, such as the disinfectant drones put to work in large public spaces.

It’s often the simplest solutions that stand the test of time. For example, belt-worn antimicrobial multitools like SafeKey, made by the cloud manufacturing start-up, Fractory, address an emerging requirement. This simple gadget, manufactured on the company’s own laser cutting platform, lets the user open doors, operate lifts and even use cash machines without their skin coming into contact with a potentially contaminated surface.

Safekey in action, image courtesy of Fractory.com
Safekey in action, image courtesy of Fractory.com

Safekey in action, image courtesy of Fractory.com

And as for the workers…

Workers have been calling for better lighting, more space, and improved ventilation for years. A 2019 study by a London property maintenance firm even found that 83% of UK workers rated their workplace as unpleasant; citing poor lighting, uncomfortable temperatures and offensive smells among their biggest grievances. So there’s unlikely to be much resistance against more space, better ventilation and fewer desk neighbours from the UK’s workforce.

The post-Corona workplace may not look radically different at first glance, but employers who genuinely care about reintroducing staffed offices safely will be paying attention to the feel and flow of spaces. Fewer objects, more floor space, intuitive design and clearer instructions will set the tone.