Reworking work: When you return to the office everything will look very different, and that’s just the beginning of a set of changes to how and why we work in offices.
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Peter van Woerkum has spent the past few weeks working in, and fine-tuning, what could turn out to be something very like the office of the future: the office of our coronavirus-altered future, that is.
He takes the lift (in which only two employees are allowed at a time) then walks clockwise to reception and grabs a recycled paper mat to cover his desk while he works. He makes his way through the now extra-roomy office–the firm has removed furniture to avoid clutter–to a workspace, which has, of course, been thoroughly cleaned overnight.
He brings his own keyboard, mouse, and laptop. Near his desk, there are marks on the floor indicating how close his colleagues should stand if they fancy coming over for a chat. If he needs the bathroom, he has to follow a specific route designed to avoid bumping into other workers. And his keyring has a new addition: a copper token that he can use to press buttons and open doors without touching any surfaces.
Since mid-March, Cushman and Wakefield, the real estate company where van Woerkum is chief operating officer, has been thinking about the transformation that the office will need to go through as employees start returning to work. Dubbed the “six-feet office”, the project vizualises a workspace that respects the social distancing required to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Initially, van Woerkum trialled the idea with a group of five, but the workplace has now been opened to up to 20 employees.
“When we launched, everybody immediately got extremely excited about the fact that there was a prospect of going back to the office at some point, and in a safe way,” van Woerkum says. “The feedback we’ve had so far has been that employees are really happy to be back in the office, and that there is some assurance that the company is taking care of their safety.”
Of course, staff needed some time to adapt. It might be a bit awkward at first to maintain a two-metre distance with your colleagues while catching up on a Monday morning, and van Woerkum stresses that the six-feet office is by no means a finished product, and that he is testing new technology daily to further improve the new office layout.
His latest experiment, for instance, has consisted of setting up beacons that can track the flow of people in the building. But one thing he is sure of is that the type of set-up being developed by Cushman and Wakefield is about to become the norm, for lots of companies.
Over the past two months, with national lockdowns becoming the new normal, companies have focused their efforts on making a rapid transition to remote working, while still keeping their companies afloat in the midst of an epidemic.
But now, governments are trying to restart their nations’ economies and return to some sort of normality. At some point in the next few months, a return to the physical office is looking more likely, at least for some. But how to manage that safely is a big challenge.
With a deadly virus still going around, how do we ensure employee safety at work? If this is the end of the close-collaboration, desk-to-desk working model, what will the office floor – and building – look like? And, if most employees are now effectively working from home and may be reluctant to return, what do we even need an office for?
For architects, interior designers or workplace consultants, these challenges are as exciting as they are unprecedented. For businesses, they are intimidatingly pressing. It is over the next few months, sometimes even weeks, that the office of the future is going to have to be built.
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