Workplace expert Yuki Kanamori believes that the future of office layout lies in avoiding the 3Cs: Closed spaces, Crowded spaces and Close contact - which is a concept being promoted by the Japanese government.
“Generally speaking, the 2m social distancing practice is key to an office layout in the ‘new normal’ environment. Enclosed spaces are really bad for ventilation, so in that sense, an open-plan layout is good.
“The new standard includes having good airflow and as far as possible, natural sunlight,” said Tokyo-based Kanamori, via a video interview recently.
Kanamori believes that a new design concept called the Six-Feet Office will influence designs moving forward.
“The Six-Feet Office could be the game changer and be a new criterion listed in the WELL Building Standard,” he said, referring to the leading global rating system that focuses exclusively on the ways that buildings, and everything in them, can improve people’s comfort and enhance their health and wellness.
“Once they add this requirement, office design will change rapidly,” said Kanamori, deputy editor-in-chief and research coordinator at Worksight, a magazine on workstyles and the working environment.
He pointed out that big global companies have the resources to achieve this but it will be more difficult for smaller companies to change the layout of their office space due to time and costs.
“Adding partitions is one of the easiest solutions. For open-plan setups, workers should not be facing each other and it would be great if there is a 2m distance in between.
“There will also be more phone booth-type of designs, and assigned desks with privacy panels or plants and bookshelves in between,” he said.
Is Office Space Necessary?
Kanamori also expects more freedom in terms of how people will work.
“Remote working for those who are able to will be part of the new normal and activity-based working (ABW) styles will be the core of offices in the future.”
ABW gives employees the freedom of where, when and how they work. It empowers employees to work at their own pace, delivering results in an environment they thrive in.
“We have to redefine the purpose of the office space – is it to socialise and is it necessary?” he questioned, adding that more automation and motion sensor applications will be adopted by companies that can afford them.
Another possible trend involves workers using full-service offices located outside the city centre to reduce congestion on public transportation.
“It’s been a difficult period, but people are now realising that the office is not as important as before, and people can do a certain amount of work from home.
“But we still believe that people are social animals and offices will remain, but their square footages will shrink. So the whole workspace and working styles will change, slowly.”
Syah Kamaruddin, principal of Veritas Design Group, believes that moving forward, well-thought-out architectural solutions, beyond strategising sanitising spots and putting up screens between staff, will be the order of the day.
“From a business perspective, clients will want solutions that placate their customers and employees, and ultimately avoid loss of business to safeguard them should a similar situation recur,” he said.
“Commercial designs which are based on open-plan layouts may have to conform with the 1m distance ruling among employees. Will this mean the return of cubicle farms? Maybe not.
“But a flexible hybrid between the two may see an introduction of a more dynamic space that collaborates creativity with camaraderie-based workplaces but without the need for total isolation,” he added.
Azrul Adnan, Veritas associate and head of post MCO, said employees working remotely is also a foreseeable trend which will de-densify office space, allowing for a more relaxed 10-15sq m average office space per person.
“Common areas like restrooms and pantries may get smaller, and conference rooms may only be exclusive to high-ranking staff as more and more meetings are likely to be held virtually.
“Public spaces like lobbies, suraus and cafeterias however, will probably be subjected to an integration of social distancing measures together with smart technology – visitors may strictly need to be announced and allocated specific time slots, while breaks for prayers and meals may only be carried out in shifts and pre-booked allocations,” he said.
Azrul said the increasing assimilation of touchless technology into architectural designs is highly likely, and go beyond automated faucets and sensor light controls.
“On one end, we’re talking about more contactless innovations for office access and remote monitoring of employee movement, and on the other, it is not unheard of to order your lift, or even your coffee, just by using a mobile app. We are sensing simpler, yet sophisticated software that can free up office space.”
Other considerations, he added, could be having wider corridors and doorways or one-way passages to minimise cross-traffic. Brightly-lit and well-ventilated, user-friendly staircases may also find its way into designs to reduce packed elevators.
“In terms of aesthetics, the minimalist approach featuring simple lines, clinical-white backdrops and uncluttered furnishing will continue to influence architecture designs, the employment of which supports efficient maintenance and good industrial hygiene practices.
“There will also be a higher tendency to incorporate antimicrobial or antibacterial building materials and finishes into designs,” said Azrul.
Interior designer Ooi Boon Seong said office design will start involving a lot of hygiene awareness, with social distancing a part of new design criteria.
“For example, let’s start with the reception area. We might see a special waiting area or room for dispatch personnel and vendors, where body temperatures are checked and of course, sanitisers at those locations,” said Ooi, chief executive director of Ooi Design and Associates.
In terms of the main office layout, designs like rollable screens may be incorporated.
“Having the 2m distancing arrangement might be too wasteful when it comes to space concerns. What can be done is having screens that can be pulled down should the adjoining seat be occupied by someone, for instance,” he said.
Meeting rooms for six to eight persons may also be done away with. “Such meetings may be held via web-based video conferencing while the staff are at their respective desks and offices. There may be phone booth-like set ups for staff,” he said.
Ronnie Choong, managing director of Neu Innerspace Kinetics Collaborative, said the way forward is the full open-office concept and also ABW-styled offices.
“In fact, before the movement control order, there has already been a strong push towards ABW or the flexible office. Such designs encourage teamwork and collaboration and this sort of office will continue to develop in tandem with the concept of working from home.
“However, the caveat is that in an ABW, there should be the provision of focused workstations, phone booth-type areas and quiet rooms to allow workers to undertake work that requires privacy or concentration,” said the interior designer.
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