In recent years, we’ve been rethinking open-plan offices because of their many drawbacks. Then, COVID-19 arrived. Suddenly having your own cubicle (preferably with a door and a window for fresh air) seems like a good choice. But we don’t need to return to the cookie-cutter partitions and windowless boxes of old. There are a host of groups working to offer alternatives to cubic-hell while lessening the negative outcomes of open-plan workspaces.
New-style furnishings and pop-up, moveable spaces are now available so businesses can customize workspaces to help employees achieve privacy, reduce noise, bar interruptions and generally rediscover work environments that actually help employees do their work more productively. Social distancing may be an added bonus.
We reported on this at some length in Creative Workspaces Are Evolving Again, but are now seeing the gap between open-plan designers and basic partition-makers being rapidly filled. Prefab, moveable furniture ranging from phone-booth sized, one-person cubbies or “cocoons” up to 4-person conference rooms can be custom-ordered from firms like Cubicall, Room, Zenbooth, and TalkBox. Multiple companies (Airbnb among them) are gathering funding to enter this new furnishing industry, trying to help fix open office spaces that aren’t working as promised for the people stuck working in them. Per Fast Company, these options are aimed at low-cost solutions—flexible, furnishing-style, temporary “builds” that can be packed and moved instead of expensively constructed into the existing building.
That doesn’t mean agencies should eliminate collaborative spaces positioned for serendipitous encounters. Boston consulting firm Humanyze has used sociometric i.d. badges to track employees’ movements in their workspaces to see if they used collaborative spaces for chance meetings (a tool now being applied to do COVID contact tracing). Their studies found that, when properly sited to encourage people to congregate, such spaces incite face-to-face meetings, and those tend to be “more creative” than remote conversations. Nevertheless, remote workforces and the ability to communicate digitally are driving a trend away from traditional office space, and toward smaller or “virtual” offices for many businesses. COVID-19 is forcing open-space businesses to try to find ways to encourage creative encounters without face-to-face meetings, and virtual offices may become an accelerating trend.
While We’re Discussing Furniture…
It’s not just the spaces we work in that are evolving, but the furniture in those spaces. A few years ago, the sit-stand desk was introduced to address ergonomically-challenged desk designs. Digital designers need different desks than traditional designers’ drawing tables, and most agency employees need to move more and sit less, purely for health reasons. Recent studies support the usefulness of sit-stand desks.
- The desks do get people to sit less and stand more.
- Sit/stand desks help people achieve slightly lower blood pressure, and a slightly higher heart rate (good for heart health).
- Overall physical discomfort is lessened, especially lower-back pain.
- There are no apparent negative effects on productivity, performance or mood.
The work-from-home shift driven by the COVID-19 crisis is also spurring interest in lap desks and related furniture to enhance “home offices” that aren’t dedicated work spaces. The cocoons imagined by space designers are now employees’ homes, and the challenge has become how to create home spaces that offer barriers from an entirely different category of disruptions and distractions. (In a recent principals’ chat, one attendee signed off when his “home security team,” two black Labrador retrievers, began barking at a passer-by. See also toddlers and absent-minded family members.)
As with all office workspace trends, agency owners need to evaluate their employees’ and business’ needs and try to provide adaptable, on-demand options so people can find productive workspaces, and stay safe during the current crisis. If your productivity is suffering, or employee morale is out-of-whack, examine whether your open workspace is a contributing factor. Budget for workspace changes in your COVID-Emergence business plan. We’ll be living with altered workspace demands for some time to come.