Designing The New Normal

Offices have constantly evolved with changing habits, lifestyle and cultural events. Yes, there have been events that have altered workspace design during the past with varying degrees of impact.

An example of this would be MNCs starting operations in India that changed the way workspaces became modular. There was also a very similar low-scale event in India during 2004-2007. Then the design was often influenced by people who were either expats or had the experience of working in other countries. 

This changed the overall work culture creating open workstations with less regard to hierarchical denominations within the company. When millennials occupied offices, there was another event that showcased flexibility- The idea that “I can work on a beanbag too!”.

Of course, it’s difficult to imagine too many offices in the early 2000s with bean bags.

The evolution of co-working is also an event that started with smaller offices but had the requirement of larger ones. Apart from the constant need for growth flexibility, the lifestyle of employees also pushed employers to choose smarter and facility-filled offices. Soon after, small startups had premium addresses instead of a garage or home location. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is bound to create a new normal at a pace which is not going to wait till the lease ends or a new office opens up. The extent of change will be determined by the impact on the way we think and react. Earlier pandemics in localized geographies like SARS and H1N1 caused only a short-term impact on our habit, lifestyle and culture. Normalcy prevailed in no time. 

From this observation, we can infer that there is always an immediate reaction to any event, however, these may not impact habits per se. 

Depending on the severity and how long it lasts, these events could range from ‘habit-changing’ to ‘lifestyle-changing’ to ‘culture-changing’. 

The best example would be our immediate reaction to sanitize everything and washing hands every 20 minutes. Habit changes include keeping hands clean and not touching our face. Lifestyle changes are to carry the sanitizer in your bag or pocket all the time you step out along with wallet & mobile phone. Culture changes are to never shake hands and greet with Namaste only. The longer it lasts the more impact it has on ‘culture-changing’.

Though it is difficult at this stage to predict how long & deep the impact will be, the best way is to ask what would change as a habit? what would change as a lifestyle? and what would change as culture?. This brings up more questions like would you do a product launch in a common area event? Would you still celebrate your colleague’s birthday or would he still blow candles on the cake? I personally believe that in India-the land of Holi, Diwali and Eid, social distancing might not last forever. Here is what we believe should be the governing principles of design in the post-COVID-19 world and the implications of the same.

The New Normal – new office design elements

My space 

Shifting to dedicated seating as opposed to shared desks and not having anyone else utilize the workstation. Space should be enclosed as much as possible. Moving to a cabin might be a lifestyle choice instead of culture. I would also prefer partitions on workstations and prefer open cubicles with personal storage for stationeries.

Productive workstations 

One would spend more time at the desk and opt for less facetime. This means more phone calls, more video calls, conferences etc.-from the desk. This means more facilities on the desk like landline phones, LAN cabling and better acoustics at the workstation. 

Trust in smaller teams 

Becoming more comfortable with a smaller group of people whom you can trust. Task team sizes will eventually grow smaller as multiple people won’t be comfortable getting together.

Self-sufficient spaces near workstations

One would not like to share stuff and hence all things which can be shared in a small group would increase like coffee machines, printers, water dispensers etc. This should be made available for access to limited people.

Lesser space for events & frequent use

Yes, the birthday parties would be celebrated but with lesser people. A product launch or party in office would be avoided. Larger areas used for open townhalls etc will no longer be a priority and so would closed phone booths. However, the requirement of breakouts of smaller capacity would increase. 

Goodbye small spaces 

Areas, where there is a possibility of coming in contact with another person, would be avoided like small toilets, tight corners in corridors, and narrow corridors. This could mean more one-way corridors, separate entry and exits for offices. Also multiple toilets across the floor plate instead of 1 central location. 

Easy cleaning

There would be more wiping, wet cleaning and sanitization activity. This means more easy-to-clean surfaces like aluminium, glass and leatherette instead of fabric, absorbent surfaces, preferably hard floors or easy-to-clean carpets.

Touch-less technology 

Wireless and IoT based platforms would take over. New apps will be introduced for operating vending machines, sensor-based sanitization, access control based motorized doors, sensor-based lights to avoid touching of switches, a mobile-based mechanism to control temperature and of course,  sensor-based taps & fixtures in toilets. 

The game of zones 

Zones could be created with independent air-conditioning without mixing supply and return air. Independent toilets, independent facilities like mini breakouts/cafeteria so as to operate independently and limit the spread by creating containment.

Skipping public transport 

There will be more travel on personal vehicles thus smaller office near residential zones will be preferred to avoid large central offices in Central business districts (CBD) and large commercial zones. This may lead to a single thousand seater office being split into 5 offices of 200 seats each in different locations across the city which are virtually connected thus more managed offices where all the facilities are ensured. Also, more parking for bikes and cars and more helmet stands in offices.

There is a varying degree of design that can be utilized and conceptualized to achieve these design principles. An example could be zones with solid partitions and everything else sealed off to free-standing partitions that can be moved to new locations. 

Most of these designs would have to be flexible to ensure that the changes can be implemented and unimplemented as the habits and lifestyle decisions might or might not turn to culture. The product solutions by various suppliers and vendors like workstations and interiors would need to focus largely on ensuring “my space”, “containment – ranging from workstation to zones” and “ease of sanitization”. 

So how would an office in the new normal office world look like is anyone’s best guess.

“OYO Workspaces is working with innovative solutions to ensure safety and COVID19 related compliance on all its existing centers. The existing centers already provide for some of the features of the predicted new-normal. These centers are also being improved in line with the philosophy of the new normal. In addition to providing workspaces that are innovative and curated with the latest design doctrine, the Co-working centers provide the benefits of getting upgraded while in operations and to tune itself to the requirements & safety of its occupants. The upcoming centers of OYO Workspaces would soon set new benchmarks in Co-working & managed workspaces, designed with the innovative thought leadership and customized solutions, providing safety & wellness to its users.”

oyo-workspaces

Here is what we believe:

Design of offices would be in Clusters which could have team size according to function or project/assignment that an individual team works with. They would be self-sufficient, isolated, with their own facilities covering breakout, services from a common pantry, possibly toilets and dedicated air conditioning systems. The humble cabin might make a comeback in corporate offices and partition-based workstations would be more prevalent. The common areas would shrink to only provide basic facilities which would be smaller but more in number, eg. coffee machine, smaller water dispenser, printers and toilets. 

Workstations would have more space to do work through Headphones. VC & Voice call will take over on each desk with relevant support infrastructure of voice, LAN etc. Meetings are going virtual so we are looking at loose seating spaces instead of a large conference table. New meeting rooms would have VC facility through chrome cast like touch-free solutions.

Even for large corporates, petite offices in Grade B commercial office buildings might increase with managed workspace models to avoid multiple offices within the city. 

The more I think, I remember my dad’s office where there were clusters of the individual department, self-sufficient cabins of senior officials, people eating their lunch on the desk, all storage and stationery at each desk, each department having attached toilets, window air-conditioners, tile flooring etc. I think apart from piles of papers, poor quality of base building and poor quality of fit-outs & furniture, the configurations can be extended to the new normal. Touch-free sensors and technology implementation in workspaces would add leaps of advantage. 

While current office designs have their own benefits and advantage of connect & efficiency, the new normal promises improved individual & team productivity and better employee care. Let’s look forward to embracing it soon!