Adapting to the new normal

Until a vaccine/cure is found for COVID-19, we can assume that social distancing, work from home polices and ongoing disinfection/sanitisation is the new normal. Sary Azakir, Project Partner and Head of Commercial & Retail Design Delivery at Drees & Sommer Middle East shares his insights with Middle East Consultant Magazine, providing possible outcomes that consultants consider vital for future planning. This feature looks to explore what impact the pandemic will have on office spaces and shared/co-working spaces, and their management, going forward.

1. Many companies aimed to maximise the number of people in a given amount of office space. As a result, these firms may now not have the space to comply with social distancing guidelines. What can these companies do, apart from investing in additional real estate and rolling out work from home/staggered timings etc?

It’s important to get a proper understanding of the current office area you have available. We recommend that companies do a thorough space analysis with a focus on their functional areas. This can help optimise office space by evaluating existing layouts and furniture placements, rethinking allocations for essential functional spaces, and creating and introducing more flexible features.

Areas to look at include the size of pantries and other shared spaces in offices such as welcome lobbies. The introduction of wayfinding technology, for example, could reduce the need for a large reception desk. The size of traditional office desks is another consideration; introducing smaller and more modular furniture may free up space and make the office environment more flexible. If your company has a lot of on-site storage, moving some securely offsite may free up space for more functional use, filing cabinets could be used as natural separators between desks to allow for social distancing and surely to convert all hard copies documents into clouds and other digital platforms.

2. What new elements can we expect to see incorporated into new office spaces, given this new normal? Are firms likely to design their spaces around business continuity and social distancing even if a cure/vaccine is announced/rolled out, so future disruptions are minimised?

We have seen a significant increase and acceptance in the use of video calls and virtual meetings during Covid-19, and we anticipate a shift away from the traditional 9:00 am-5:00 pm workday in the office.

We have witnessed the emergence of three types of people; those that prefer to return to the office fulltime post Covid-19, those that would prefer to continue working from home, and those that would benefit from a hybrid model that allows working from home and the office in a blended work environment. How organisations will facilitate the return of their workforce will have an impact on the use and design of office space.

At Drees & Sommer, we foresee more flexibility when it comes to office space, both from a size and design perspective. Working more flexibly will enable companies to have smaller offices hence reduce their operational cost, which in turn translates into a shift in office design. This may include co-working spaces, flexible desks, moveable partitions, as well as the introduction of designated video call rooms and sound-proof phone booths.

We also expect to see further adoption of contactless technologies in the office environment, including electronic wayfinding, no-touch doors and handles, online scheduling tools, automated coffee makers, and hygiene stations. At Drees & Sommer, one of the core areas we specialise in is digitisation and smart buildings, and we anticipate a significant increase in demand for both in the post-COVID-19 era.

3. In the last two years, co-working spaces were appearing across GCC countries at pace. How has the pandemic impacted these spaces and what can be done to ensure that these spaces thrive and are safe for their users in this new normal?

I believe that the demand for co-working spaces will continue to grow, especially for smaller companies that are looking to keep their operational cost down. As long as co-working spaces follow the rules, regulations, and health and safety guidelines set by the Government and relevant health authorities, including WHO, there is no reason for them not to thrive. Temperature checks, social distancing guidelines, ongoing sanitisation programs, effective user communication, and response plans will be key to operate safely. However, we may see a shift in design, similar to what we expect with permanent offices, with an increased focus on functional versus common spaces and the introduction of dedicated areas for video calls, for example.

4. Considering the increased focus on virtual meetings/conference calls, could we see an increase in firms rolling out spaces tailored specifically to handle audio/video calls, with better acoustics/background etc?

Yes absolutely. We expect to see a redesign of meeting rooms to optimize the use and function. This could include resizing individual meeting rooms, for example, breaking a large boardroom up into several smaller meeting spaces, as well as the implementation of sound-absorbing materials for walls, ceilings, and partitions to enhance the quality of audio and video calls. We are also likely to see the introduction of dedicated spaces or ‘video cubes’ which can be randomly placed in the office layout as design feature for virtual meetings that are optimised in terms of acoustics, screen placement and lighting.

5. Research has found that some materials, such as copper, naturally destroy viruses whereas materials such as steel and plastic have little to no effect on them. Could we see greater focus on materials with anti-microbial properties or is cost going to be too prohibitive? What materials provide anti-microbial properties and are cost effective?

We foresee a more extensive use of materials with anti-microbial properties in new office environments, but this may take longer for retrofit projects.

Materials with anti-microbial properties are not necessarily more expensive, but it is important to select wisely with the assistance of experts in this field. It is generally recommended to reduce the use of wooden materials, including flooring, which could be replaced by vinyl, tile, or laminate. More expensive but suitable anti-microbial materials for office use include quartz/stone, acrylic, and modified polyester acrylic surfaces and biocidal surfaces.

6. Since the WELL Building Standard focuses on comfort, health and wellbeing, could we see an increased focus on firms attempting to incorporate WELL principles into their spaces across the GCC?

WELL building standards, and others such as Delos, are great principles for companies to focus on and implement to enhance employee wellbeing. I believe that the well-being and the happiness of every employee is the key for a successful business, hence implementation of well-studied principles should be a must for every company. Covid-19 has amplified the importance for employees to feel healthy and safe and to be well protected in the workplace. This is giving companies an opportunity to rethink the wellbeing of employees in terms of office design.

The design principles should ideally be an integral part of the overall company philosophy, and it doesn’t have to be very expensive to implement if adequately thought out and considered early on, especially for new office space.

7. What guidelines have been put in place by authorities in terms of facilities management, following the outbreak of COVID-19? Are authorities running ongoing checks to ensure that companies are complying?

Ensuring the safe (re)opening of offices is a responsibility everyone needs to bear, from building management and facility managers to office tenants and visitors. Holistic planning, stakeholder collaboration and effective monitoring and communication will help limit the risks to everyone involved.

The Government has issued clear guidelines and protocols for the reopening and safe operations of facilities and venues, including offices, and all businesses need to take the necessary measures and precautions to comply with these. They include regulations on entry health checks, occupancy and capacity levels, social distancing, sanitization procedures, and the use of personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, and hand sanitiser.

8. What precautions/measures do facilities management firms recommend that companies take in terms of their office spaces, given the threat of COVID-19 is ongoing? What about public spaces within offices such as meeting and lunch rooms?

At Drees & Sommer we consult with clients to deliver bespoke advice on the safe operations of their offices. This includes a detailed space and workflow analysis.

It is important to analyse - and where applicable modify- operational workflows for effective contamination control by avoiding cross flows and cross-contamination, which includes movement protocols for occupants, deliveries, visitors, and goods in/out.

We also recommend (re)defining building management roles and responsibilities based on new operational regulations and workflows, including a re-assessment of HSE functions to include COVID-19 duties.

Lastly, the current situation has demonstrated inadequacies to crisis preparedness for a health crisis and the reopening of premises is an opportunity for organisations to evaluate protocols and to update crisis management processes.

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