It’s thought that a year of coronavirus lockdowns has cost the economy £251billion through closed businesses and reduced footfall. So, it’s no wonder that the Government and private businesses alike are keen to get Brits back in the office.

As a society we are getting used to one-way systems, handwashing and working from home, but when companies make the big return to work, what are some of the changes we can expect to see?

We caught up with some experts in the field, as well as members of the senior team at Airdri who shared their ideas on the physical and cultural trends they predict when offices begin to open again

FOCUS ON AIR QUALITY

Before coronavirus, most of us had probably not thought about the way viruses, such as the common cold, are transmitted. Cramped into small, stuffy meeting rooms or even larger open plan spaces with lots of ‘bodies’, infectious particles can quickly multiply and create a hot bed for cross-contamination. For example, a single bacteria cell can multiply to over 8 million in an 8 hour period, which can present major infection control challenges in places like offices.

But even before coronavirus, there were dangers in the air we breathe while at work – in fact you can read all about indoor air quality in our blog on the subject as well as on the Government guidelines for ventilation and fresh air.

Steve Whittall, from Airdri, said: “In our first quarter for 2021 we’ve seen a huge increase in enquiries from office managers and larger firms that are preparing for a return to work. Companies want a solution that provides as little disruption to employees as possible; yet minimises the risk of virus transmission through stagnant/unventilated air & surfaces.

“Our air sanitisers effectively eliminate 98% of airborne and 96% of surface viruses, bacteria, mould, fungi, and odours to give extra peace of mind. Not only this but once installed, sanitisers work continuously in the background to eliminate harmful pathogens in the air and on surfaces.

“They are quiet and compact yet suitable to cover large open spaces, as well as smaller spaces such as meeting rooms or communal break areas that will undoubtedly see a higher volume of staff congregating.”

Tim Crabtree, director at Mint Office, which supplies quality office furniture and designs safe, well-thought-out working environments, added that additional plants and greenery will also be used in a bid to improve air quality:

“Plants are important to offices as they help improve both air quality as well as ambience.  There are some plants which are brilliant for helping clean the air of impurities, but they add to the aesthetic too, making the office environment a more appealing place to be in. This is going to be very important to help workers to adjust back into office life and leave their home comforts behind.”

NO TOUCH TECHNOLOGY TO INFLUENCE BEHAVIOUR

Whether it’s automated motion censored lights, doors that open by themselves, or simpler inventions that limit the amount of people touching switches, handles and keypads; businesses will be looking for new ways to reduce the times people use high traffic touchpoints in the office.

Adam Bennett from access control and ID card specialists Digital ID believes technology could also be used to influence behaviour. ID cards can be programmed to only allow access to certain areas and routes throughout a building, rather than relying on individuals to follow the rules.

He said: “access control systems are infinitely customisable, if you want your employees to have one way access that’s more than easy to achieve by programming the system so that doors can only be opened in certain ways or to specific patterns and timings.” 

The company has also recently seen record sales of its innovative anti-bacterial KROK ID card holders that negate the need to use door handles, he said:

“Companies are looking for simple, cost effective solutions to stopping the spread of viruses through touch, so something as simple as an ID card holder that means they don’t have to touch doors and keypads with their hands is a no-brainer.”

LAYOUT CHANGES

Layout to reduce cross infection could change in a number of ways according to experts.

Smaller, closed plan spaces

Matt Thickett of Oscar Compliance Solutions, a company that assesses workplace compliance to Covid-regulations said:

“The open plan office came into existence as a way of stimulating ideas and creativity through ease of interaction, but studies have shown that open plan spaces are also linked to low productivity, stress and high blood pressure. But as companies strive to make workplaces as Covid-safe as possible – they also pose a health threat.

“The problem with open plan and infection is that it gives many more opportunities for more people to cross-infect one another.

“An uncovered cough or sneeze creates a spray of up to 40,000 disease-ridden droplets that travel at up to 200 mph to up to 26 feet and stay suspended in the air for up to 10 minutes.

“Smaller offices that house fewer people could certainly return, as well as rotation patterns. For example, a rota system with one week in the office, one week work from home could be introduced to allow businesses to function even if one or more team members become sick.”

A return to 1970s cubicles

Matt continued: “During the pandemic, partitions have been introduced, mostly Perspex screens, which we’ll probably see well after the vaccination roll out. We usually advise that desks are rearranged so that workers are back-to-back rather than facing on another but segregating workers through partitions is another solution.”

Tim Crabtree at office interior design firm Mint Office, added:

“A return to more individual workspaces or ‘pod’ [booths] working with greater space between work areas could not just prevent infection but also give workers the privacy and concentration space they need but may not have enjoyed in the pre Covid-19 layouts or at home.

We have had significantly more interest in pods and breakout areas, or modular office designs that can be adapted to the changing needs of the work force.”

QUIET ZONES

Tim Crabtree at Mint Offices believes companies will also need to consider the ambient noise levels in offices now employees are more used to working from home.

“Home-working has given some people the space to ‘zone out’ and get away from the chatter and noise so that they can really focus on the task in hand.

“The trend for ‘break out’ areas were already gaining traction but we have seen a huge increase in companies installing a ‘quiet zone’ or soft seating areas, pre-pandemic and this is likely to continue as workers who are used to the home comforts and total silence when needed.

“Booths are another option as a means of offering smaller, private and less distracting work-spaces.”

THE RETURN OF THE TRADITIONAL TEA BREAK

Managing when employees take breaks could be another change that both employers and employees need to get used to.

Matt at Oscar Compliance Solutions said:

“It’s about limiting gatherings and mixing as much as possible. So, for instance, the mass exodus for a cigarette break or a chat by the water cooler could and should become a thing of the past.

“Congregating in the kitchen could be another potential route to cross-infection, so some of the businesses we’re working with have even floated the idea of bringing back the tea trolley in some shape or form. Serving up hot beverages direct to desks. It would certainly meet the criteria for keeping a workplace Covid-safe, how it may go down with employees is another matter.”

THE END OF THE DEPARTMENT

Some experts believe that when we return to office spaces, entire departments will not be permitted to sit together as they would have pre-covid. Rather, larger companies may organise their teams into huddles with representatives from different teams across the organisation.

Matt continued: “The thinking behind this is that if a close contact becomes ill and passes on an infection, the entire department will not be taken out and the company can continue to operate.”

SCREENING AS STANDARD

Screening, both in terms of health-related questions and physically, with temperature logs on entry to a building could become commonplace.

Adam Bennett at Digital ID said: “New procedures and vetting processes will be needed to mitigate the risk of bringing illness into the workplace. There is scope for temperature screening booths and lateral flow testing areas being installed onto sites to ensure those who could pass on an infection do not gain entry.

“Vaccination status could be checked on entry too – the software is readily available for a ‘digital vaccine passport’ and would be very easy to use – it could be as easy as scanning an ID card.”

HOMELY DESIGN WITH ADDED PROTECTION

Thoughtful interior design will really come into its own to help employees settle back into communal working.

Tim at Mint Offices said:

“It’s unlikely that workers will be able to personalise their work-space with photographs and knick-knacks as they may have done previously due to contamination risks and many will also be used to their home comforts, so there will be a need to create comfortable and welcoming spaces.

“Offices will be more spaced out with concentration not just on desks and chairs but break out areas too. Looking at colour and texture is becoming much more important to create a pleasant, more homely working environment. Gone are magnolia walls and neutral floor coverings.

“Many companies may give workers more choice over the colour of their desks and more importantly proper supportive seating, stationery and desk accessories like laptop risers etc. will also help in a bid to help them create a comfortable and welcoming space.

“There are surfaces and fabrics coming on stream which are anti-bacterial, both of which will self-clean and stand up to more abrasive cleaning and substances which will help eliminate bacteria and viruses.”

AUTOMATING THE RECEPTION

Adam Bennett from Digital ID said: “There is a definite rise in automated check-in kiosks to replace the front desk. Using dedicated software employees can also check-in to a flight, book a taxi or order a pizza for a meeting themselves using their smartphone effectively negating the need for admin support. Rather than waiting areas with newspapers and magazines, businesses will use tech solutions like visitor management systems.”

NO MORE MEETINGS FOR MEETINGS SAKE

The days of back-to-back meetings crammed into a tiny board room are gone. Some thought-leaders have even gone as far as to suggest that senior management will have to approve meetings in advance to ensure they really are vital to the running of the company. In terms of layout does this mean the end of the meeting room?

Steve Whittall from Airdri said: “Companies have really switched onto the time-saving and expense-saving reality of online meetings.

“Meetings are still going to be important, so I can’t see companies doing away with board rooms and meeting rooms entirely, but the rooms will be repurposed to include better video conferencing so that teams can get together easily virtually.  Air and surface sanitising technology could be employed to stop meeting rooms becoming ‘fragrant’ or full of germs without the need for cleaning in between meetings.”