As the world struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic, designers and planners are redefining the workspace. Remote work was a growing but still limited part of the workforce during the pre-pandemic economy, but within weeks of the crisis, companies swiftly reconstructed their workspaces with the emphasis on remote work. The advent of the internet allows us to connect remotely, forced to “upload” ourselves more into this virtual world of connectivity. The definition of office-spaces is now being transformed, with the increasing accessibility of remote working, the environments we learned to adapt in are now seemingly changing overnight.
In a study on the impact of working from home published by the Harvard Business Review titled “The Implications of Working Without An Office”, the authors conducted a survey among 680 U.S. based-employees with varying backgrounds regarding the shift from being office-based to working from home from the start of shelter in place orders last March until May. The study yielded both telling and surprising results. One assumption was that performance and staff productivity would suffer when employees are forced to work outside the confines of a standard office setting. However, results from the study suggest that there was little loss in productivity or none at all. Additional benefits of working from home cited in the study include more time spent with family and eliminating the perennial strain of long commutes. In contrast, study participants also reported a negative shift in job satisfaction and employee engagement at the start of lockdown but these have since improved as people developed their respective work from home routines over the next few weeks. A significant increase in virtual meetings was also reported, not just in frequency but also in length. This was a double-edged sword because although this gave a sense of unity and much needed social interaction among colleagues, data from the study showed that it also took away time that could have otherwise been dedicated to addressing actual tasks. Arguably the most concerning finding from the study reveals that several participants find themselves doinglonger than average workdays. In an article aptly titled “3 Tips To Avoid WFH Burnout”, Professors Laura M. Giurge and Vanessa K. Bohns stress that the phenomenon where employees feel the need to work longer hours just because they work from home should be particularly alarming for management as these might make employees more susceptible to burn out.
THE FUTURE OF WORKING FROM HOME
State of Remote Report 2020 – Image from lp.buffer.com
Along with the transformation of the workplaces, the evolution of our personal spaces, such as our homes, are seemingly changing overnight. The situation calls for more people to work from home, a survey by Buffer’s annual State of Remote Report shows that 98% of people would like the option to work remotely for the rest of their careers. The top benefit from working remotely has remained the same according to Buffer, with flexibility topping the list for 3 years now.
Setting up your Home Office – Image from Hurray Design and Contract World
Inside our homes, we have a sense of areas dedicated for certain uses. Our homes are now places for productivity, and distractions such as background noises can be a hindrance. After months of working from home, people are starting to come up with their own routines and zones to delineate work from personal activities. In a webcast by Hurray Design and Contract World entitled “Setting up your Home Office!”, design experts shared their tips on how to achieve a conducive with-from-home setup. The webcast shared ideas on how to pick a spot in your home, ergonomics, down to the fine details like good lighting and backdrop set up. Whether conducting work inside your bedroom, in a designated home office, or even in communal areas such as the living room and dining area, a routine or mental zoning of these places gives us a better sense of “unplugging” from the work we do from our personal spaces. Without the physical variations, clear-cut change of location, and defined working hours, we tend to have a tougher time defining personal and professional time. Prior to the pandemic, we thrive in our environments designed for collaboration and productivity. The workstations and the favorite spots in our offices are filled with ergonomic products and systems. Chairs, tables, lounges, these are just some of the ergonomically designed pieces that make up our offices, translating these pieces into our own homes further improves our working conditions.
As economies slowly reopen and parts of the workforce report back to the office, suffice it to say that safety is of paramount importance. Numerous studies are now being done in order to ensure that as companies reopen their workplace, they can do so with minimal risk of spreading infection by making sure that their work environments are safe, clean, and follow at least the minimum health standards mandated by public health officials.
PHYSICAL OFFICES IN THE FUTURE
Several companies have also shared some of their best practices in minimizing the risk of spreading COVID-19 within the workplace. One such guide is a recently published e-paper titled “A Safe Landing in a New Office Reality” by Vitra, a furniture design company based in Switzerland, and is currently available for download via the company’s website. It includes valuable insights and design ideas that companies can adapt in transforming their offices into safe working areas. In the e-paper, Vitra provides several safety measures that companies can use to strengthen their physical infrastructure like space planning and layout proposals, measures in increasing hygiene standards, even citing a case study from South Korea which examines how easily COVID-19 can spread when companies fail to put proper social distancing and safety measures in place.
Sample office setups featured in Vitra’s second e-paper on the future of work. Image belongs to © Vitra
The design firm has adapted much of these best practices prior to reopening their own Vitra Campus and Vitra Design Museum to ensure the safety of both their staff and visitors from infection.
The welcome and reception area of the Vitra Design Museum. Image belongs to © Vitra
The new indoor seating room of Vitra Museum cafe. Image belongs to © Vitra
However, it can never be argued enough that the most effective way in minimizing the chances of contracting COVID-19 will always be self-isolation. As illustrated in “the hierarchy of controls” that was featured in an article by Professors Joseph Allen and John Macomber which the Harvard Business Review published last April, the most effective way of protecting people from possible infection is self-isolation and remote work.
Hierarchy of Controls – Image from CDC
Such transition is made easier as well in the advent of virtual workspaces and enhanced connectivity online. In a webcast last July 8, Vitra’s Trendscout Future of Work Raphael Gielgen shared that while physical work spaces still hold value, particularly when it comes to facilitating social interaction, the “work from anywhere” model of how we do things will be part of the new normal. Through virtual tools like Zoom and Slack, he believes that knowledge sharing is now practically unlimited since we are no longer hampered by geographical boundaries thanks to technology.
Despite continued efforts in understanding the nature of COVID-19 globally, there really is no telling when things might or even would go back to “how they were”. Until a viable cure is found, the question of whether people would resume working in traditional office settings again remains unanswered. As days turn to months and more people settle into the new normal, whether that entails working from home or re-entering the office, the only thing that we can come to expect is that our norms and ways of working are changing faster than we can anticipate. The ability to adapt is no longer just a measure for success, it has become a pivotal key to survival.