WHAT IS COVID-19?
COVID-19 is a new disease caused by a novel strain of virus from the Coronavirus family, which has caused diseases previously known as SARS and MERS. Over a short period of time, this disease has evolved from a localized outbreak to a global pandemic. The speed and scale with which it propagates, itâ€™s severity, and itâ€™s severe socio-economic disruptions are defining characters of this pandemic. According to preliminary data from WHO of the infected populace, about 40% experience mild symptoms, 40% moderate symptoms, 15% sever symptoms, and 5% experience critical symptoms.
MODES OF TRANSMISSION
According to the UAE Ministry of Health & Prevention, this respiratory infection spreads through the contaminated droplets from an infected personsâ€™ sneeze or cough being breathed in by another or from people touching their eyes, nose, or mouth after coming into contact with any surface contaminated by these droplets.
LIFESPAN OF THE VIRUS
Data from research published on in The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine state the lifespan of the COVID-19 virus (in room temperature and about 40-65% relative humidity) as follows:
â€˘ Printing & Tissue Paper - Upto 3 hours
â€˘ Copper - Upto 4 hours
â€˘ Cardboard - Upto 1 day
â€˘ Cloth Fabric & Wood - Upto 2 days
â€˘ Paper money & Glass - Upto 4 days
â€˘ Stainless steel & Plastic - Upto 7 days
â€˘ Outer layer of surgical mask - Over 7 days
Further studies discovered a viral envelope, a protective sheath around the COVID-19 virus which promotes itâ€™s survival in higher humidity, moderate to low temperatures, low winds, and solid surfaces. This also means that porous surfaces, low humidity and high temperatures lead to the breakdown of this envelope and thereby render the virus ineffective.
HOW HAS IT AFFECTED THE WORKPLACE?
The high speed and severity of this new disease has or threatens to overwhelm most of the worldâ€™s healthcare systems. As a result, Governments of the world have decided it best to employ stringent physical distancing measures and movement restrictions. Although these lockdowns and curfews help impede the spread of the disease, it has also led the world of business to slow down significantly and along with it, the global economy. With medication and vaccines yet to be developed and seemingly some time away, these physical distancing measures are likely here for some time.
Within the UAE, this means closing down many retail spaces and offices, and having the majority of non-essential employees work from home, or in staggered shifts. Sadly, these restrictions have impacted the ability of many businesses to stay afloat and there is an urgent need to plan for a phased shift away from total lockdown to rejuvenate the slowing economy whilst maintaining low levels of transmission.
ASPECTS OF DESIGN THAT CAN MAKE AN IMPACT ON VIRUS TRANSMISSION
With the onset of the remote working protocols, businesses worldwide have begun to reconsider the necessity to follow densely packed open plan trends that evolved from mimicking big tech Silicon Valley firms with communal work areas intended to promote collaboration. Over the years, companies have tried to pack more into less urban real estate, leaving very little personal working space to employees. Given our experience with the current pandemic, this is all very likely to change in upcoming designs, with emphasis not limited to improving the behavioral trends within the workplace but also in terms of physical changes such as signage promoting observance of personal space and good hygiene, physical barriers, automated access controls with minimal physical touch-buttons, ventilation and air circulation, anti-microbial work surfaces, and easy to sterilize designs. In the first portion of this four-part blog series, we will explore the various behavioral trends that are likely to have an impact on post-pandemic office designs.
As many people may have noticed, the most prominent change brought on by this pandemic is more behavioral than anything. Below we will focus on some of the behavioral trends that are finding its way into our workplace and are likely to stay.
REMOTE WORKING / WORKPLACE DENSITY
With remote working protocols having to be enforced during the lockdown period, employers and workforces around the world have begun to reconsider the previously ingrained notion that dictate rigid work hours and 100% attendance. Previously seen only in the IT sector, more industries are now discovering that employees can be as productive when working from home. In some cases this can even mean less burden on the employer to setup larger office infrastructure to accommodate all employees at the same time. Along with remote working, flexible work hours and staggered shifts are also gaining momentum in terms of adoption among various industries.
All this means that there is less need to build up cramped office spaces with employees sitting elbow-to-elbow. The less density of people within an indoor space, the less likely it is to propagate any illnesses brought in by one of the employees to the entire workforce. In the previous cramped model, one such infected employee can render a companyâ€™s entire workforce handicapped.
PERSONAL SPACE / SOCIAL DISTANCING
Social distancing and personal space is perhaps the single most important aspect this pandemic has taught the world. With the advent of globalization and urbanization, people have gotten used to the steadily increasing population density within urban areas. This leads to cramped living spaces, public spaces and work environments that provide way too little personal space for occupants than recommended minimum limits.
Post-pandemic, this is likely to change with many companies likely to provide employees with a layout that maintains distance between each other. With many working from home, there will likely be more real-estate for employers to work with to provide those employees that come to the office. WHO states an infected person has high likelihood of transmitting the infection via droplets from breath if standing within 1m of another. With remote working and staggered shifts gaining popularity, there is likely to be more real estate to work with for companies and workplaces are likely to incorporate these aspects of personal space into future designs.
OPEN PLAN WORK SPACES / COMMUNAL SPACES
Open plan offices and co-working spaces that gained popularity with the dot-com era and startup frenzy are likely to see a decline. Co-working spaces promote the sharing economy, a concept brought about by high population density leading to high demand for real estate in urban areas and therefore highly inflated office space costs. These spaces promote users to share work spaces/surfaces and result in higher likelihood of disease transmission. Communal spaces that go hand-in-hand with these types of designs will also be subject to scrutiny. Un-partitioned, shared work surfaces will surely see a decline as they provide close to none protection against the spread of disease in the workplace.
Older concepts of cubicles, partitions that offer significant shielding and private offices are likely to see a comeback in future designs, as they promote better isolation among employees. This is also spoken to improve productivity as opposed to cramped open-plan/co-working environments as they support employeesâ€™ individual needs and keep them focused on the tasks at hand.
MEETING ROOMS / COLLABORATIVE SPACES
As mentioned earlier, this pandemic has caused a shift in the train of thought of the necessity of physical presence within the office. Similarly, meeting rooms are likely to have a design change. Physical meetings are slowly being shifted to the virtual plane as they can be conducted within the safety and comfort of the participantsâ€™ homes.
Meeting rooms of the future will be geared/focused towards collaborative work which cannot be performed virtually. They will also be designed to be less densely packed to allow participants their personal space. That said, the office of the future will also be focused on group projects and collaborative work that cannot be performed virtually, and as such meeting rooms will hold great value within new office designs.
AREAS OF HIGH TRAFFIC
The workplace of tomorrow will also discourage most forms of gathering. From the use of elevators to pantry/breakout areas, will be discouraged as they pose transmission hotspots.
Stairwells may not just be beneficial to prevent infection transmission but also be a good source of cardio. Similarly, pantry/breakout areas will not be abolished entirely. Instead we may find them re-invented to a functional and purpose built design, which takes into account the need for employees to de-stress and at the same time maintain social distancing.
GUIDELINES / PROTOCOLS
Further to all the above mentioned changes, companies will need to formulate a new post-pandemic plan if they donâ€™t already have one as a guideline for office etiquette, personal and office hygiene standards to maintain, any new workplace protocols implemented to reduce/hinder transmission of infection. These guidelines would need to be passed on to the entire workforce through digital and physical means before the newly designed changes are implemented and regularly after to ensure they are fully adapted and allow significant protection to the employees.
HOW TO OVERCOME THE CURRENT CRISIS?
With the current global numbers standing at over 5 million infected individuals and over three hundred thousand global deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic in just over 5 months, this is a crisis unlike any recent turmoil from recent history, we have faced as a planet. Lockdowns and strict restrictions although essential to curb the exponential spread of this disease, have crippled the global economy. Furthermore, with an effective treatment or vaccine months away from practical use, we must slowly look to formulate an effective guideline to reopen facilities. Well defined precautionary guidelines with all the essential aspects addressed is necessary to repair and rebuild the economy.
The above mentioned behavioral trends attempt to address aspects of workplace behavior that may affect office designs of the future. When attempting to reopen or fit-out new office spaces, one must consider all the aspects discussed to ensure the office design attempts maximum reduction of transmission risk within the workplace.
ARE THESE MEASURES TEMPORARY / PERMANENT?
The current crisis has not only effectively brought our economy to a standstill, it has also revealed the weak points within our societal systems. Similarly, not only has the lockdown shut down workplaces, they have also revealed a need to rethink the design norms that exist within the current office. Some of the above discussed aspects are changes that can be seen to make an impact to long term office designs whereas some only have a short lifespans till the dangers of this crisis wear out.
Do you have trouble determining the appropriate design considerations to keep in mind when creating your ideal workplace in the post-COVID environment?