The global pandemic is rewriting each and every rule book. Until we can rely on a tried and tested vaccine, social distancing and its related protocol will require a reinvention of our behaviour, culture and physical office space.

Miles McLeod

Workplace Consultant

14th May 2020

Many businesses now recognize the benefits of providing activity-based workspaces for a spectrum of working styles and to enhance wellbeing. Will these workspaces survive when we return to the office? And if so, will major changes be needed to enforce our new reality's requirements?

What is an activity-based workspace?

In the last six weeks or so, we have all inadvertently modified our homes into activity-based hubs: the collaborative kitchen table has become the natural choice for home-schooling; a quiet bedroom is a prime choice to make anxious video calls; and, furloughed guest rooms provide an extra layer of lockdown, away from the family hubbub.

The at-home model is a haphazard reflection of the pre-COVID office fit out. Activity-based working was, in the good old days, a gourmet menu of workspaces to enable optimal efficiency for collaboration and focused work.

Empowered by technology, we made personal choices about which area suited the task in hand. Did we want to: collaborate with colleagues; inspire creativity; focus; relax or socialise?

So which activity-based office spaces will thrive within the realm of social distancing? And how can we sweat our real estate assets given the new reality?

Home office design

The desk

Whilst the desk will remain at the heart of our offices, there will be a radical shift in our approach. Hot desking and its associated shared equipment philosophy will become not only impracticable, but undesirable. A sense of ownership and personal control over assigned desks will boost our teams’ confidence and mitigate the risk of spreading infection.

The practical implications of assigning desks and increasing the space between users will require staggering of work teams. In doing so, it will be crucial to ensure the teams' profiles simulate a typical work environment. This will maximise productivity, maintain a sense of cross-team connection and enable the organisation to function as one.

Man working at office desk

The meeting room

Small meeting rooms will continue to provide highly valuable space for collaboration, as long as the capacity is reduced by 50% or more: an eight person meeting room will now provide a safe space for three people placed diagonally.

Larger meeting rooms however can no longer be used for their intended purpose even with a significantly reduced capacity. Movements of large numbers of people cannot be controlled within social distancing requirements. Given that any meeting involving more than three people will therefore require virtual collaboration, it points to an obvious conclusion that video meetings should currently remain the way forward.

The fundamental value of any meeting room however should not be underestimated as space to collaborate, even if just for two people. In a business where regular collaboration between co-workers is key, temptation to use precious meeting rooms as additional desk space or for ancillary storage should be resisted. The trade-off value is simply not high enough to justify losing that opportunity.

However there is a latent value, albeit temporary, in repurposing meeting rooms as enclosed desk spaces if there is little or no need for individuals to collaborate.

Creativity may point towards walking meetings to foster a flow of energy and balance wellbeing. They may also relieve the pressure on office space whilst simultaneously fulfilling social distancing requirements.

Amey circular meeting room design

The private booth / office pod

One-person office pods are potentially winners in the new world. Increasingly adopted in activity-based office spaces before COVID-19 changed our lives, these private pods will become sought-after venues.

However, without adequate control around sanitisation, these spaces could be viewed as a petri dish, incubating the evil enemy. Close monitoring will be needed by ‘etiquette marshals’ to ensure that selfish behaviour doesn’t outweigh the benefits.

The shared booth / work pod

Previously shared booths and seating pods were a popular and efficient alternative to meeting rooms, intimately engaging small numbers of users. Pre-vaccine, they are a victim of their own design and will not survive in their current form. However, if compartmentalised and repurposed, these spaces will be well-placed to fulfil the increased demand for assigned desks or one-person pods.

Camelot standing desk office pods
Bottomline agile private booth fit out

The relaxed space

The survival of relaxation areas in the workplace is wholly dependent on individuals and a company's ability to implement clear behavioural protocol and cleaning regimes. Where this is successful, such areas can – and should - survive. They are necessary for our state of mind. They provide a space to take a breather and allow us a brief glimpse into the community and office culture of the past that we continue to crave.

Common spaces: kitchen / photocopier

Culturally, these spaces represent one of the biggest changes to our office life. No longer will they be the place to catch-up, exchange ideas and build relationships. Single person usage with controlled entry and exit points will become the norm. Our people will feel safer when they bring their own refreshments to the office. Scheduling rotas for the use of printers or photocopiers may be necessary to avoid log-jams.

Costa office relocation breakout area design
Morgan Lovell office design to impress

Closing thoughts

Activity-based working brings out the best in our teams. It inspires our thoughts, enables our collaboration and improves our wellbeing. As we emerge from this extraordinary global episode, we need the freedom to return to working inclusively with our colleagues and clients. But the overriding priority must be safety.

Activity-based working is by no means sentenced to death. We will continue to derive significant benefits from this flexible way of working, but with a healthy sprinkling of post-pandemic reality. Having fully adjusted to the lockdown home-working model, we can include this as another available space to give us further flexibility in our daily routines: collaborating in the office, and focussing at home.

Albert Einstein once said “You can’t use an old map to explore a new world” and his words ring clear and true for activity-based working until vaccinations are all but a distant memory.