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Rethinking Office Space for Lower Density

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Picture of office worker alone
Image: Seventyfour -
Talk is rampant these days about how COVID-19 and the mass move to work from home (WFH) changes everything back at the office. But how so?
For a reality check on office design post-COVID-19, I touched base with Melissa Marsh, founder and executive director of PLASTARC, a social research, workplace innovation, and real estate strategy firm that explores the performance of workplaces based on their ability to deliver on human experience. Marsh, who is also senior managing director of occupant experience for global real estate services provider Savills, and I chat regularly about trends around the collaborative workplace. In a conversation earlier this week, we discussed the transition from WFH into the office, from both the employee and corporate perspective.
Behavior & Technology
Here's the thing: As much as we might read about the need to design office spaces to accommodate social distancing, this option is likely infeasible for anywhere but net-new builds, Marsh said. The hard truth is, “office furniture is expensive, and it’s a tremendous amount of material waste to scrap it and start over,” she said.
Reconfiguring layouts sounds good in theory, but practically speaking office furniture isn’t as configurable as furniture companies like to tout, Marsh added. Factor in delivery and setup costs, which she said often equal the price of the furniture itself, and, well, you can see why COVID-19-prompted office redesigns aren’t likely to get a CFO’s stamp of approval.
And net-new builds are far and few between, Marsh pointed out. “Eighty percent of office is already built, and at one point in time, only a small fraction is in the process of being reconsidered or renovated.”
That means the changes we’ll see upon returning to the office will have to be in behavior and technology — “in how we use the space and enable the space,” Marsh said. To think the physical changes will predominate the office rethink “just isn’t feasible from a price, sustainability, or do-ability perspective.”
Spreading Out by Design
Consider the desk layout in a typical workspace. When employees return from the office hiatus, corporate planners will look to make sure those desks are only occupied at 20% to 30%, so one or two people for every five or six desks, Marsh said. Over time, occupancy will inch up to 50%, with one person every other desk. “It's not till, potentially, we have a vaccine and the true solution to this that we're seeing office occupancy or density back up at what it was pre-COVID-19, where you would see the potential of a person at every desk.”
“Potential” is an operative word. If you were to have taken a snapshot of assigned corporate America workstations prior to COVID-19, what you would have seen is one to two out of every four workstations occupied because, generally, no more than 70% of a population comes into an office on any given day, Marsh explained. And, when people are in the office, they’re often not sitting at their desks anyways, “so we weren’t used to seeing anything more than 30 to 50% simultaneous occupancy in workstation environments, anyway,” she added.
As shelter-in-place restrictions lift, Marsh said she anticipates seeing an occupancy rate at assigned desks at about half that, “by virtue of the continued reliance on telework, and most organizations giving people the option as to whether they return to the physical environment or not in the near term.”
Office planners might also approach spaces from an activity-based working or dynamic seating model now, too, to accommodate teams of people who have traditionally sat in the same section of a block of workstations — since they won’t practically be able to come into the office at the same time, Marsh said. So maybe they allow a team of five or six people to spread out across 10 or 12 workstations on Monday and Tuesday, with another group of folks using that workstation cluster on Wednesday and Thursday (sanitation applied, of course).
And to keep track of it all, Marsh pointed to room booking or space assignment software as critical. “These are great solutions for helping organizations plan a lower-density use of their existing facilities.”
I’ll be sharing more from our conversations in future posts, so watch this space!