Redesigning the Corporate Office

The trend in corporate office design since World War II, in which workers are packed closer and closer together regardless of the cost in productivity, looks like a disaster in an era when a viral contagion has forced many such offices to close. Offices now will have to be redesigned with safety and productivity in mind.

The old theory of safety in numbers does not apply when the biggest risk to workers is a contagious virus easily spread wherever people are packed close together and when the biggest risk to productivity is distraction. Corporations that planned on getting work done with twice as many workers working half as fast now have to look at boosting productivity so that work can be completed with the number of people who can safely fit in the office space.

The guidance that workers should be two meters apart means that most corporate office furniture now has to be scrapped and replaced with new designs that don’t have office workers rubbing shoulders at cafeteria-style tables. Retrofitting the current furniture to turn desks into phone booths, already being done as an emergency solution in some places, will be too claustrophobic to work in the long run, and the restricted air flow introduces health risks of its own.

The new need for productivity also means that the acoustic space needs to be considered. There was a theory that workers spaced close together would collaborate better, but when this was attempted, observations show the opposite. In a space where dozens of people are within earshot, most workers will avoid talking for most of the day except when specifically required to minimize the distraction to everyone around. This produced the paradoxical result of most messages being sent in writing between workers spaced 1.1 meters apart. The proximity created the same communication distance as if every worker were in a different building with only a computer network to connect workers to each other.

Some large companies have embraced this result and are looking to a future in which the vast majority of workers are working remotely. Others are trying to find more balanced design concepts that will boost communication within the office.

The traditional use of office design to signify class distinctions between multiple levels of managers and between managers and workers presents a substantial barrier to effective office design. This effort chews up so much space that managers may have to be removed from the office floor entirely to arrive at a working design.

The details of the new office space are hard to imagine at this point, but it is already safe to say that many workers will not be returning to the office on a regular basis, and most of those who do will not simply be going back to the same office as before.

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