Opinion: Covid will force us to reimagine the office. Let’s get it right this time

In an op-ed for the Guardian, Dr Kerstin Sailer (UCL Bartlett School of Architecture) says the Covid-19 pandemic has caused us redefine the working environment, but with many unable to adequately work from home, we should not give up on shared working spaces.

When offices in the UK closed in mid-March and companies instructed their staff to work from home - without access to their usual materials and tools, their physical workspace or to many of their colleagues - people already sensed that this was an unprecedented experiment. No one was prepared for this, not even the banks, with their elaborate business-continuity plans focused on terrorist attacks but not on completely avoiding human contact. Against all odds, working from home was more successful than anyone would have predicted, with many people reporting their productivity had increased during the first two months of lockdown.

Months later, most office workers have not returned to their shared workplaces, and those that have come back are finding themselves catapulted into a strange new world of plastic dividers, distancing, mask-wearing and hand sanitising. Amid the turbulence of second waves and local lockdowns, the best that employers can do right now is offer a phased and flexible return to the office, closely evaluating risks as they go.

The much more interesting debate is about what kind of office we would like to return to. Now is exactly the right time to think ahead, and understanding history is instructive. Two particularly pioneering ideas of the past on the spatial organisation of workplaces offer valuable lessons.

In 1968, designer Robert Propst carried out studies of people’s working processes and came to the conclusion that the typical office "saps vitality, blocks talent [and] frustrates accomplishment". On this basis, he developed his ideas of the "action office", a modular furniture system allowing flexible configurations and changes in the degree of privacy and community, mainly through movable partitions. Almost two decades later, the architect Robert Luchetti defined a series of different locations that office workers could use for various activities, thus creating the foundation for what later became known as "activity-based working".

Both of these concepts were human-centric and idealistic, aiming to improve office work for people. They also suffered a similar fate of becoming distorted and misunderstood over time. Propst’s action office was meant to liberate office work, but soon it got reduced to the idea of partitioning, and thus the cubicle was born, creating dense, almost factory-like, conditions. Workers battled with the worst of all worlds: being distracted by endless noise while being denied the community-building aspects of seeing and being seen. In fact, cubicles turned into the worst-rated setting in workplace satisfaction surveys. Activity-based working did not fare much better: it became synonymous with the dreaded hotdesking, a cost-saving exercise whereby office workers shared desks but did not benefit from alternative work settings being provided.

What can we learn from these two episodes for the post-pandemic office? That space is not neutral. Spatial design always has consequences. It gives rise to a pattern of opportunities: how often we see others, who we see on the way in and out, where we bump into people, how easy it is to strike up conversations with colleagues from different departments - all of these occurrences emerge from workplace design. Whether an office makes people lonely or inspires solidarity and a sense of togetherness, is often due to a combination of spatial structures and organisational cultures. Moreover, space is not neutral because it doesn’t just happen - it is human-made, based on purposeful decisions.

In the same way that the ideas of Propst and Luchetti ended up in workplace miseries, we might experience a cost-driven crush on offices when we emerge out of the pandemic, exactly at a point when everyone is vaccinated and eager to meet again in person. The tech giants seem to be leading the way. Having built massive cathedrals of innovation before the pandemic, they seem to have made a strategic U-turn, with physical workspaces declared unnecessary overnight, so that everyone is asked to work from home for longer. This is even more puzzling because their previous approach which celebrated co-presence with fancy office design, from slides to beanbags, ping-pong tables and ice cream chefs on site, does at least side with academic research on the importance of encounters for creativity and innovation. Research suggests that unplanned face-to-face interactions are important drivers of new ideas, an effect often known as the "strength of weak ties". In fact, research has shown that weak-tie interactions have suffered disproportionately during the working-from-home period.

Therefore, we should not give up on the idea of a shared workspace for everyone in the future. Not only is it impractical to suggest working from home as a standard response during a housing crisis, where many may lack the opportunity to set up a permanent and adequately equipped workstation. Being together and sharing experiences is fundamental for both individual and organisational health and wellbeing. In the long term, getting rid of the office completely may even harm an organisation’s bottom line, as good ideas dry up, onboarding of new staff becomes tricky and teams begin disintegrating. We can surely make it through more months or years until we have a Covid vaccine, but we should not sacrifice the idea that we will all meet again regularly in a space, a space that provides the best design possible for people to share a sense of togetherness and purpose.

This article was first published in the Guardian on 4 August.


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