Lockdown level 3: Back to work … the new normal

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When more office staff return to work in level 3 of the lockdown, it will be a very different space they walk into from the one they left nine weeks earlier and the traditional open-plan office may be gone for good.
The biggest challenge within traditional office spaces – especially those that are open plan – will be maintaining physical distancing.

“Since the early 2000s, most office spaces locally transitioned to an open-plan typology to support communication and collaboration while maximising on floor-area economy,” said Nonkululeko Grootboom of the department of architecture at the University of Pretoria.

But, there has been an ongoing debate relating to the effectiveness of open-plan offices in recent years and the pandemic may provide the impetus for a change in the way we work.

Even prior to the current crisis, many companies were developing policies allowing staff to work from home or remotely for a specified number of days each week.

“The current crisis could propel the re-emergence of the action office, also known as the cubicle office, as an alternative to the open-plan office to allow for privacy and support focus-work,” said Grootboom.

Multi-storey buildings are designed around a sealed lift core, situated more or less in the centre, and staff tend to congregate at lift lobbies at peak times such as on arrival.

But with new risk-adjusted health and safety protocols demanded by the Department of Health to prevent the spread of Covid-19, companies have to analyse and replan their existing office layouts for a safe return to work.

With level 3 approaching, some of the immediate actions will be limiting entry points, screening and monitoring staff, containing the arrival and movement of visitors; and heightened cleaning and hygiene protocols for staff and the maintenance of buildings to meet stringent health requirements.

In an open-plan office, face-to-face desks and those that are adjacent must make way for desks which are spaced 2m apart. Where this is not possible, screens must be installed or certain desks should be marked as out of bounds, said Grootboom.

Employees whose role requires them to be in the office should have a designated desk, and boardrooms and meeting rooms will each need to have a maximum occupancy that allows physical distancing.

Grootboom proposes that big offices create one-way circulation and avoid having employees passing and crossing in opposite directions, and that lift capacity must be limited. Furthermore, she said, in ablution facilities, companies should make use of alternating stalls, urinals and washbasins to support physical distancing.

She stressed the importance of engaging with staff and having clear signage to make them feel comfortable if they have to go back to work at this time.

Where possible, coming into the office should be optional for anyone who can reasonably work from home.

“We are at the dawn of the new normal,” she said, which will influence office design of the future.

“We can look at this as incremental shifts in the following three phases:

Immediate actions that companies can take for safe workspaces in level 3;

Strategies companies can put in place for an ongoing pandemic;

Then, finally, reimagining the future of office spaces.

“I foresee the reimagining of office space typologies and the development of associated space standards and guidelines. Going forward, I think more companies will be more open to giving employees freedom of choice of where to work,” she said.

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