Health and Healthcare Systems

COVID-19: Is this what the office of the future will look like?

A man wears a protective mask as he walks on Wall Street during the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, New York, U.S., March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson - HP1EG3D18FND0

How will coronavirus change our workplaces? Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Harry Kretchmer
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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This article was updated on 28 May.

  • Facebook has unveiled a mixed reality workspace, which could help its employees work from home in future.
  • Millions of people in China have returned to work, and other countries beginning to ease lockdowns.
  • Organizations should plan how to adapt offices to comply with social distancing rules.
  • Real estate company Cushman & Wakefield has designed an office where workers can keep six feet apart.
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What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

COVID-19 has upended working life, changing how and where people do their jobs.

Twitter and Facebook have both announced they are giving employees the opportunity to work from home permanently.

But not all companies are able to do so - and with governments across the globe starting to ease lockdowns, minimizing virus transmission at work is top of many organizations’ agendas.

Here are 10 ways that work and workplaces could change.

1. Augmented reality workstations

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Facebook has been experimenting with futuristic desk set-ups, where virtual screens float in the air and people can resize them.

Its head of virtual reality and augmented reality, Andrew Bosworth, revealed footage of a mixed reality workspace on Twitter.

He said the social network wants to "supercharge remote work" - and has been working on enabling people to "switch between real and virtual worlds".

In a blog post, Facebook said the technology is part of a new computing platform that would combine augmented and virtual reality with new devices to create "infinite workspaces" that could allow co-workers to collaborate in virtual meeting rooms.

And they're working on Codec Avatars - lifelike virtual avatars of employees - to enhance social interaction, "helping social connections in VR become as natural and familiar as those in the real world".

2. The socially distanced office

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Office desks are likely to change to observe the six-feet rule. Image: Cushman & Wakefield

Homeworking will continue, but office life - in some form - will, too. The challenge lies in how to adapt workplaces. Global real estate company Cushman & Wakefield has risen to the challenge with a new design.

It's called the Six Feet Office. It's a way of transforming existing offices into places where the six-feet distance rule - which governments may continue to mandate - can be observed.

Arjun Kaicker led the workplace team at architects Foster and Partners for a decade, and now heads up analytics and insights at Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA). He predicts the current pandemic will radically reshape office furniture.

“Office desks have shrunk over the years, from 1.8-metre to 1.6-metre, to now 1.4-metre and less, but I think we’ll see a reversal of that, as people won’t want to sit so close together,” he told The Guardian.

3. Simple solutions

How to keep desks clean? As well as obvious additions such as more hand sanitizer, some deceptively simple changes could help.

For example, in Cushman & Wakefield’s office, employees are asked to grab a paper placemat for their desk. At the end of the day, the paper is thrown away, which could help mitigate COVID-19 spreading on surfaces.

4. Closed plan

Office fashion for decades has included open-plan working. But could COVID-19 reverse this mega-trend, leading to a closed-plan future?

“I’m not suggesting we all go back to working in 1950s cellular cubicles, but I do think the density in offices will change,” predicts Kaicker, who forecasts a move away from open-plan layouts.

5. More signs

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Offices of the future could have visual cues to keep your distance. Image: Cushman & Wakefield

Think road markings, but for offices. From squash-court-style lines in lobbies to standing spots in lifts, and from circles around desks to lanes in corridors, the floors and walls of our offices are likely to be covered in visual instructions.

One possible approach is to encourage employees to walk clockwise, creating one-way flow to minimize transmission, as adopted by many hospitals during the current outbreak.

6. Contactless technology

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
The Bee’ah HQ in the UAE features many design principles that could become widespread. Image: ZHA

Companies may also need to invest in a new suite of contactless technologies to reduce disease transmission.

Zaha Hadid Architects’ new headquarters for the Bee’ah waste management company in Sharjah, UAE may be a glimpse of the future. It is packed with what ZHA calls ‘contactless pathways’, whereby employees rarely need to touch the building with their hands. Office doors open automatically using motion sensors and facial recognition, while lifts - and even a coffee - can be ordered from a smartphone.

Technology could also be used to remind employees of social distancing. Cushman & Wakefield has installed beacons into its office to track employees’ movements via their mobile phones, potentially sending alerts when six-feet rules are breached.

7. Rebuild

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Employees could be monitored to make sure they observe the six-feet rule at all times. Image: Cushman & Wakefield

Given the gravity of the situation, some companies may need to get the builders in, either for a retrofit, or a more radical rebuild.

“I think we’ll see wider corridors and doorways, more partitions between departments, and a lot more staircases,” says Kaicker.

“Everything has been about breaking down barriers between teams, but I don’t think spaces will flow into each other so much any more.”

8. Fresh air

With good ventilation being key to preventing the spread of COVID-19, a big trend could be simply opening a window - if windows can be opened, that is, since many offices are now sealed, controlled units.

And where filtered air is the only option, it could be boom-time for high-end office climate control systems. China’s mass adoption of this technology to address poor air quality is thought to have assisted its office workers to return to their desks more quickly.

9. Co-working

Could the recent boom in co-working companies, where start-ups share buildings - and in some cases, desks - change post-virus?

Darren Comber, chief executive of architects Scott Brownrigg, thinks it might. “We’ve seen a huge boom in co-working spaces,” he told The Guardian.

“But, after this, are companies really going to want to put their entire team in one place, where they’re closely mingling with other businesses?”

10. Greetings

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We've already glimpsed the future, as many organizations implemented greetings policy changes before office staff were sent home.

Handshakes are out, and look likely to remain so for some time to come. But new greetings have emerged.

Earlier this year, billboards in Beijing promoted clasping one’s own hands. The UAE and Qatar asked citizens to avoid nose-to-nose greetings, and the French government frowned on greetings with a kiss. Expect more safe-distance greetings to evolve in an office near you soon.

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