Collaboration to Separation: How Covid 19 has reversed the psychology behind modern workplaces

With countries worldwide looking to ease lock-downs in the near future, businesses today face the challenge of re-opening operations in a post pandemic world.

Modern workplaces of today aren’t designed to put space and distance between people.

They are in fact designed to optimize space by building a culture of sharing and collaboration. Open, barrier-free plans have been the recurrent theme in offices over the past decade.

Workstations are compact, spaces are tight and densities are high in order to fit maximum people within the office. Pressured by high rentals, most corporates are looking to gain maximum value from every buck spent on their real estate.

Given the current emphasis on social distancing, businesses will be compelled to rethink their workplace planning, at least temporarily, to support a safe working environment.

From achieving densities as high as 60 Sq.ft / person in certain IT companies, businesses may have to go back to the earlier prevalent 100 – 125 Sq.ft / person density in order to achieve the mandated 6 feet distance between work points.

In such a scenario, how can businesses balance appropriate safety measures along with optimizing space utilization? Would this mean lowering efficiency or productivity?

Listed below are six measures to tackle social distancing at the workplace:

Flexible Working

With a large part of the workforce already working from home during this lock-down period, a lot of businesses may consider continuing this even after the immediate threat of the virus slows down. Staggered shifts, four day weeks, and flexible timings are all strategies companies are likely to adopt and adapt going forward. This would significantly reduce the employee density within the office.

A strong remote working policy coupled with an adequately spaced out furniture plan can ensure both safety and productivity for all employees.

Un-assigned Seating

Un-assigned Seating or hot desking, is more relevant than ever in this scenario. With un-assigned seating, employees can come into office on a rotational basis and pick their own seat. Whilst someone is working from home on that day, someone else could be using that seat. This will reduce the number of seats required in the workplace and allow for more space in between desks.

Further a clean desk policy will allow thorough sanitization of the office at the end of the work day.

Defining the Path, Confining to Zones

Workplaces may consider implementing a guideline for all employees to traverse the workspace in a set direction or path only. Whilst it may take a few seconds longer to go to the copy machine or reach that cup of coffee, it’ll help avoid face to face collisions with others. Taking the longer route may well be worth it.

For larger workplaces, employees should be encouraged to limit movement within specific zones on the work floor.

Spatial Alterations

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Following recommendations around social distancing, it is imperative that sufficient distance be kept between workstations. Companies may choose to utilize every alternate workstation to maintain requisite distance. Desks may be reconfigured so that employees face away from each other.

In cases where distance between desks is not possible, installing privacy screens or low dividers between workstations to prevent exposure to cough or sneeze droplets may be considered.

Visual Signages

Visual signals and signages can play a key role in defining safe distances.

Simple measures such as taping a cross on the carpet to mark suggested location of chairs, or creating a simple square grid of 6 ft X 6 ft on the flooring to indicate safe distance when interacting with a colleague can serve as constant reminders. Signages suspended in high movement zones such as main corridors, lift lobbies and restrooms can prompt people to navigate the space mindfully.

Multi-Use of Space

Offices can convert smaller meeting rooms, focus rooms, break out rooms and phone booths into temporary work points for individual work. Employees should be encouraged to take all meetings virtual during this period.

Instead of using the cafeteria only during lunch hour, it can be put to use through the day. Lunch timings can be staggered to limit the number of people within the cafeteria at any given time.

Whilst these measures may not be necessary forever, they are surely needed for the foreseeable future. And once things settle down, it is yet to be seen, if this would emerge as a new trend in office design altogether.

Do you have any more suggestions for adopting social distancing at the workplace? If so, please leave a comment below!


About the Author:

Kavita Mohta
An Architect by training, Kavita has over 7 years of design experience. In her previous role as Workplace Strategist and Change Manager at Cushman & Wakefield, Mumbai she assisted small and large MNCs transform their workplaces and deliver an exceptional experience for their employees. Her focus lies in helping clients adapt to flexible workstyles (non-territorial working, activity based working) via real estate strategy, occupancy studies, ROI realization, staff & leadership engagement and more.

Pursuant to a passion for all things design, she continues to mentor and teach in design and architecture schools in Mumbai.


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