The Road back to the Office

A set of hypotheses by Vitra

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The Road back to the Office
20/05/2020 - The coronavirus is first and foremost a human tragedy that has affected the lives of millions. The pandemic has not only changed the patterns of personal interaction – with increased sanitary measures, social distancing and the rise of digital communication – but has also fundamentally altered the way we work. With the progressive loosening of protective government regulations, institutions and companies are preparing to return to their normal ‘modus laborandi’. Every company is responsible for taking precautionary measures in the workplace to stop the further spread of COVID-19, and physical distancing remains the most effective tool in this regard.  
 
"Applying Vitra’s long-standing knowledge of the environments in which we work and live or where we travel, we have drafted a set of hypotheses that can help companies, institutions and employees  return to the office with ready-to-use spatial solutions and carefully conceived planning approaches", says Nora Fehlbaum, CEO of Vitra.

Increased hygiene standards will be maintained, as employee health becomes an important company value 
 
Safe at work, in public and in transit 
 
Just as airport security was permanently altered to address the threat of terrorist attacks after 9/11, shared environments will adopt new procedures to protect users from infection and disease. Disinfectants will be provided in all entry halls and bathrooms. In some places, standard temperature checks and the wearing of masks may even become the norm. Surfaces, handles, bathrooms and even frequent contact areas on chairs will be cleaned daily. Rituals such as handshakes, friendly hugs or cheek kissing will no longer be deemed appropriate.  
 
Going to work while sick will be considered unacceptable. Sick days may increase. If not sick enough for a sick day, then employees will work remotely or – at least – wear a mask. Company doctors will have a stronger voice and play an important role in navigating these new procedures.   

Increased health standards have a direct impact on workspaces 
 
Self-opening doors and elevators that respond to voice prompts instead of touch buttons will be installed. Zero-touch coffee zones and canteen areas with pick up only and badge payment will be offered. Canteens will be affected: easily wipeable tables and chairs will be used, and unnecessary shared elements such as salt shakers will be avoided. 
 
Textiles and upholstery may lose attractiveness, while materials like leathers/faux leathers and plastics that are easy to clean gain in relevance. Wood can be considered a good option: a warm natural material, comforting to touch, yet hygienic and easy to clean, wood was selected by Alvar Aalto as the material of choice for the Paimio tuberculosis sanatorium. Self-disinfecting materials and surfaces like brass, copper and other metals, as well as self-cleaning foams will be employed where available. 
 
Members of vulnerable high-risk groups may be offered a different work environment altogether, ranging from an assigned office space or personal cubicle to single offices or even a separate floor. 
 
New health standards will change how we use public spaces and transport  
 
Increased health measures will drastically influence not only the way we work together but also the way we co-exist in public. Waiting areas in airports, train stations, ports and other public transport facilities must comply with health regulations specifying the required floor space per person as well as safe distances between individuals. Here, markings and panels are simple temporary solutions. Furthermore, stricter hygiene standards are becoming mandatory in public areas. Seating and waiting areas may be cleaned several times a day. 
 
Working remotely will become much more prevalent 
 
The emergence of a new work-life balance 
 
Many companies, teams and employees have been obliged to work remotely for weeks. This involuntary experiment demonstrated that functioning technology is available, productive work is possible and even teamwork can thrive. As a result, not allowing employees to work from home will no longer be acceptable for companies competing in the war for talent. 
 
Talent will make a conscious choice after having experienced work life without commutes or excruciating travel and instead having spent quality time with loved ones: does my employer allow me the freedom to schedule my day as long as I deliver my output? Does my employer let me live where I can afford a higher standard of living without making me spend hours commuting by car or train? Allowing for remote working gives a company access to a global talent pool and at the same time reduces its ecological footprint. In a physical office, the mere act of showing up already signals commitment. An employee working from home has to continuously prove and demonstrate value creation. Working from home creates a culture that accepts more performance tracking and makes lack of performance more transparent. 
 
Remote work has a direct impact on office and home environments 
 
A large part of the workforce may choose to work remotely for at least part of each week. Regular remote work can reduce office space density and therefore allow for physical distancing in the workplace. 
 
Working from home requires a dedicated space in the home. The home office protects work hours from the interruptions and distractions of personal life. Dedicating an area of the house to work ensures confidentiality while fostering digital detox and work-life balance in the rest of the home. In some cases, employees may even be able to expense the extra space required in the employee‘s home. Remote work requires the appropriate physical infrastructure: an ergonomic task chair, a height-adjustable desk, a desk lamp, WLAN, noise cancelling audio equipment, IT hardware and software. 
 
How and where we meet will change 
 
Working in the age of social distancing 
 
Among the first measures taken by most governments dealing with COVID-19 was a ban on large gatherings, conferences and events. As more severe measures were introduced, the number of people allowed to assemble in any form was even further restricted. If and how we meet, therefore, will likely be impacted as we enter the post-corona reality. The frequency of meetings will decline – we will only meet when we really have to. Board meetings and investor/client consultations may be more accepted than internal get-togethers. We will all travel less. The duration of formal meetings may increase as we meet less often but for longer periods of time to avoid unnecessary travel and make the most of personal interactions.  
 
Companies may establish more restrictive travel and meeting guidelines, e.g. banning travel for internal meetings. Fairs and congresses that by nature require large crowds to gather in confined spaces will be less attended and move much of their programming onto digital platforms. Meetings and conferences, although considered notoriously unproductive, are at the core of how most companies operate.  
 
New spatial solutions will be needed to allow for personal and in-person exchanges without risking infection 
 
Meeting rooms will have lower maximum capacity, reducing the number of seats to allow for more distance between attendees. The chairs themselves may become more spacious to fill the resulting empty space. 
 
Meeting rooms that are too small to enable physical distancing will be transformed for single-use activities such as focus work, phone calls or other virtual interaction. 
 
Informal meetings will take place in open-space environments, ideally standing up. These short touchpoints, e.g. a team huddle to plan the activities of the day every morning, will be done without chairs or tables, working with a wall or a flipchart. In temperate climates, outdoor meetings may become more popular. 

New rules will be developed for shared spaces, and office layouts will be adapted 
 
The new office territoriality 
 
Crowded workspaces, working at benches in close proximity to others, or being reassigned to a different non-territorial workplace every day will be called into question when we return to our offices post-crisis. Some may go back to cubicles that prevent interaction with others and therefore infection. This begs the question, however: why ask an employee to commute to work in order to hide behind a wall? In addition, cubicles – while possibly an answer for high-risk groups – are not space-efficient. Companies will have to allow for physical distancing in their offices, but are probably unwilling to invest in expanding their office footprint. Rules and guidelines will appear that specify the floor space per person and physical distance between workers.

One answer to this issue of density is regular remote working. Working in shifts or waves outside the usual 9-to-5 routine could be another answer. Shift work would also solve density issues on public transport during rush hour periods. Desks could be shared by the same two people on different shifts with cleaning in between. Each employee has a personally assigned chair that is safely parked in a reserved space during the times they are away. A chair is only reassigned after deep cleaning. IT hardware that is touched by the user, such as keyboards and headsets, is never shared. Sharing with others will be less acceptable than among a trusted team that treats the office like their neighbourhood. Bathrooms, meeting rooms and other ancillary spaces may be more clearly assigned to teams. Coworking spaces will demonstrate their hygiene standards with visibly active cleaning crews, disinfectants, easily wipeable surfaces and the fresh clean look of their interiors.  
 
Shared facilities and remote working allow space for more flexibility and productivity in the workplace 
 
Rules and guidelines on the required floor space per person will be adapted for lower density, resulting in wider benches and the inclusion of more walls and partitions in the main workspace. 
 
Unassigned, shared objects are optimised for physical distancing, e.g. by dismantling every second seat in a Soft Work element or by mounting screens between seats and on tables/benches. 
 
For positions that require a mix of remote work and office presence, each employee is provided with two chairs: one for the office, one for home. 

The physical workspaces that remain become a conscious investment 
 
Returning to the office 

 
Companies, teams and functions that require physical labour (production, lab work etc.) or interaction with clients or machines will continue to be personally present at their workplaces. The social distancing measures for the coronavirus reveal, however, that the office appeals to workers beyond pure necessity and function. In Gensler’s U.S. Workplace Survey 2020, respondents clearly chose the office as their preferred workplace when presented with the options of working at home, in a coworking space, a coffee shop or the company office. COVID-19 confirmed this tendency: most of us started to miss our usual work environment, social interaction and routine after the first couple of weeks of remote working. 
 
The physical workspace acts as an important factor in preventing the loneliness epidemic in an increasingly digital world. Some talent cannot or does not want to work from home and requires the physical environment to focus, interact or simply to be in surroundings that signal the purpose of their chosen employer. These companies have a responsibility to avoid marginalising the main caretakers of households and children, often women, by not requiring them to work from home – where they are essentially confronted with both of their jobs at the same time. Working productively from home may be a valid option for at least part of the time, when a group has already developed a functioning work mode. First, we need to gain a level of trust in real life in order to openly share ideas, decipher each other’s personalities and read between the lines. All the technology in the world will not make people come together and support each other if there is not already a culture of collaboration. 

Fostering a culture of collaborative work in the physical workspace 
 
After COVID-19 and the experience of working remotely, it becomes a conscious decision for companies to offer a physical workplace and create a physical representation of their company. Remote work is better, cheaper and healthier than bad office space. Companies that keep their physical offices will need to make them an attractive place to be. 
 
After the pandemic, many companies will restructure to adapt to their new reality: repetitive, standardised tasks may be digitalised, and jobs that require a traditional workplace setup may be removed from expensive office space and moved to remote working. Creative or highly sensitive tasks at the core (R&D, branding, innovation, management) are more likely to remain within the physical walls of the company. They require serendipitous, unplanned moments that spark collaborative human invention, which only a common physical space can provide. These teams will find the right balance in a high-quality office environment that reflects the brand’s identity and offers agile, flexible workspaces. The latter allow the company to better breathe in sync with the cycles of the economy.  
 
After the pandemic, companies will look to reinvent themselves. The crisis is leading to a new clarity of thought and decision-making. Tough decisions can be more persuasively communicated and the profile of the company sharpened. The home of the company (HQ, campus etc.) is the most visible and tangible physical representation of that new identity and must be adapted for a credible, lasting and successful reinvention. 
 
Aesthetics will change, or will they? 
 
The return to safe values 
 
As a result of COVID-19, we have all learned that we can truly work from anywhere. Thus, going to the physical office becomes a very conscious, deliberate decision for most of us. We go there to meet our colleagues, to do specific tasks or to align our efforts with the mission and purpose of our employer. The more closely the physical environment reflects these values, the more directly its users will relate to them. Without a visible culture, the office will fall apart.  
 
One common thread that we will all be looking for is ‘humanness’. Especially in the new era of social distancing, ‘humanness’ needs to be re-injected into the environments where we spend so many hours. The office can and should look somewhat more formal than our homes, but in a way that meets elemental human needs after the crisis. It must provide a sense of physical and psychological comfort, protection and safety, while meeting increased hygiene standards. Novel shapes, colours and materials may surface to fill these demands. Following WWII, wartime innovations were put to peaceful use and a technical utopian aesthetic emerged, typified by the use of moulded plywood and fibreglass in furniture design. The post-corona wave of innovation may – as has been the case in the past ten years – be mainly digital and hence invisible, just like the virus. For now, therefore, many of us may find psychological comfort in the safe values and familiarity of products that are themselves examples of the ‘survival of the fittest’ – ones that have served the generations before us and which will still be there for those that follow.  
 
Issue 01 of the Vitra e-paper is now available for download here: www.vitra.com/backtotheoffice.
Issue 02 and 03 will follow in the next weeks and will be available on the same link.  Each e-paper explores two of the six hypotheses in further detail.  

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