Back to ... the new nor­mal

Dis­tanc­ing de­mands will drive work­place trans­for­ma­tion

The Independent on Saturday - - METRO - VAL BOJE

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 fo­cus­work,” 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.

“More com­pa­nies will be more open to giv­ing em­ploy­ees free­dom of choice of where to work,” she said.

SHEL­LEY KJONSTAD

THE open-plan Dur­ban news­room, that houses the In­de­pen­dent on Satur­day, Sun­day Tri­bune, the Daily News, The Mer­cury and Isolezwe, stands empty dur­ing lock­down, as edi­to­rial staff moved out to work re­motely. As lev­els of the lock­down ease, ex­perts are say­ing desks will have to be sep­a­rated and other changes made to en­sure phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing of staff and other new health and safety pro­to­cols are met. | African News Agency (ANA)

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