The modern office is a cruise ship

The modern office is designed like a cruise ship, with people moving from space to space with collaboration and interaction designed to encourage social ‘bumps’, making it the ideal transmission environment for Covid-19.

And the return to the office in significant numbers is unlikely to happen until we have a vaccine.

As we start to think about returning to our offices, the facility managers and workplace experience teams around the world are making the office space ready for safe occupancy. The news from South Korea of a call center case study earlier this year, where 44% of workers on one floor tested positive for Covid-19[1] is alarming. The reality for many modern workplaces is much worse.
Call centers are open plan layouts where the call center operator sits at their desk for most of the day, with a break-out space for lunch and recharging. It is a process-based workplace requiring two space types, and an employee’s allocated desk is where they spend 70-80% of their time. This is the type of open plan layout we have grown accustomed to seeing depicted in the movies.

Over the last decade most new workspaces in western countries has been developed for knowledge workers where their work is much more interactive, collaborative and team based. Desks are used around 20-30% of the day, as employees move to a range of different spaces for a variety of activities such as workshops, team meetings, small meetings, video conferences and so on. During a pandemic, this type of collaborative programming creates unintended and high risks for transmission. Much like holidaymakers on a cruise ship who roam between the restaurants, bars, pool, and cinema spreading Covid-19 wherever they go in a floating incubator.

To make matters worse, this movement between activities in the modern office is carefully arranged to maximize opportunities for interaction, collaboration and what we call social ‘bumps’. We designers are creating workspaces with the desire to increase productivity by sharing information faster and creating parallel rather than linear work processes. This is unfortunately proving an ideal host and enabler for Covid-19 transmissions.

To the casual observer, the open plan design with people sneezing across desks is the problem of the modern office. The reality is much worse, and it will be challenging to utilize office spaces at anywhere near their designed capacity due to the majority of the spaces being shared and the layout designed to encourage interaction.

At Woods Bagot we are working with our diverse portfolio of clients around the world, whether they be banks, tech firms, lawyers, professionals or the public sector to re-frame the modern workplace to provide a productive environment for employers and a safe working environment for employees fearful of returning to the office and contracting this deadly disease. With the global distribution of the vaccine still months away this work is critical as we quickly try to revive our businesses and economies and safeguard our communities.