Covid-related hygiene concerns are forcing companies to reconceptualize the modern office
The first two decades of the 21st century saw the rise of the open-plan office. The cubicle — that much maligned symbol of corporate oppression — was thrown out right along with the fax machine. It was replaced by big tables with individual tech workspaces, a setup not dissimilar to the communal worktables that millennials sat around in elementary school.
Or, if you want to take a darker view, not too different from the pre-tech factories that filled the spaces now inhabited by white collar workers. Just replace sewing machines with MacBooks and you have a modern-day “factory.”
But the Covid-19 pandemic is forcing companies and designers to rethink the open-plan approach — and maybe rethink the idea of the “office” altogether. First, the lockdown sent everyone scrambling to transition hundreds of thousands people from an office environment to individual home offices. Now, as lockdowns start to ease across the world, companies are turning to interior designers who trained in the open-plan model and asking, “What now?”.
The answer is a combination of increased cleaning and sterilization methods, larger spaces between desks in order to comply with social distancing guidelines, a workforce that only comes into the office on certain days, and the cubicle. Yup — you read that right. Those grey, soul-crushing mini-walls are getting a makeover for the 21st century. And if you do end up going back to an office in the next few months, you’ll very likely be inhabiting one.
The contemporary cubicle resembles the cubicles in Office Space only insomuch as it’s a movable, temporary “wall” between workers. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Just as the open-plan office was designed to encourage creativity and wellbeing (a result that is debatable, but the topic for a different article), the new cubicle comes in a multitude of different materials, shapes, and even sizes.
In some places, you might just see clear plexiglass walls between workers, kind of like the ones you’ve seen installed at convenience stores and cafes since the pandemic started. They’re a cost-effective solution, clearly meant to be “temporary” — lasting only until we’re out of the acute phase of the pandemic — and don’t make a huge impact on the general design of a space, aside from looking a bit strange at first.
Other offices are likely to go for a full redesign, dismantling those group tables and creating individual spaces for workers. Some possibilities include soft, moveable “walls,” individual cubbies, walls covered in moss, and more traditional cubicle-like structures. Regardless of the specific choice companies and designers make together, however, they’re going to have to take into account things like social distancing and acceptable density, which is where the idea of allowing workers to return in waves comes into play.
Cubicles aren’t the only part of the office that will be using new materials. Previously trendy material choices, like cement, soft stone, and unfinished wood are difficult to clean and have a porous nature, which makes them perfect for germs. Expect a shift away from these types of materials and toward non-porous ones, like different kinds of fiberglass and plastic, as well as textiles with anti-microbial properties. Perhaps we’ll see a return to the more “space age” design of the mid-20th century.
Further reading: How to set up your home workspace
And, of course, we’re undoubtedly going to see a lot more hand sanitizing stations, contactless doors and elevators, and a higher budget for janitorial services. Because if there’s anything this pandemic has taught us, it’s that human beings can be pretty filthy. And when you put them all in an office together, day after day, that filth builds up quickly. In order to best protect office workers moving forward, companies are going to have to do everything they can to mitigate that.