The smart office

Time to get SMART in the office

Image credit: Ben Hasler/NB Illustration

New approaches to building design and innovative technology will make the post-pandemic office look very different.

While employees will continue to spend more time working from home once the coronavirus pandemic has subsided, the need to visit an office at least occasionally won’t go away completely. The office of the future is likely to look considerably different from those we are used to, however. Organisations will rearrange their working spaces to meet stricter regulation around biosecurity to protect against future outbreaks while accommodating smaller numbers of employees at any one time.

A survey conducted by the CBI and PwC last summer found that 74 per cent of financial services firms were reviewing their current office space requirements for example, primarily driven by a desire to redefine or reconfigure use of existing facilities. Very few were actively considering closing down their offices entirely. But most recognise they will need to maintain some sort of shared workspace on a smaller scale as employee visits become less frequent or limited to those taking part in initiation, training, meetings, team building and collaboration activities.

The office of the future is likely to be configured and built specifically to address healthcare concerns and encourage social distancing while taking appropriate measures to ensure limited numbers of staff are present at any one time.

Remote booking, occupancy maximums and virus alerts

Remote booking systems will make sure that only a limited number of people can occupy an office, or space within an office, at any one time and for a limited period. Booking apps will include time limits and issue alarms when those limits are reached and send instructions to leave the area. Attendance systems will also be integrated with contact-tracing apps that provide alerts when workers have been in contact with people subsequently diagnosed with any virus and advise on a suitable course of remedial action.

The personal smartphone will become a fulcrum for office facility interaction, increasingly used as a contactless mechanism for building, toilet and meeting room access, and to control shared devices within the office such as lifts, lights, HVAC systems, vending machines, doors and video screens.

Merging of physical and biosecurity checks

As well as identity checks and entry authorisation via either digital passes or smartphone apps, security processes at campus entry will include biosecurity examinations such as temperature checks. They could even extend further to fast diagnosis of specific viruses like Covid-19, with temporary quarantine areas provided for visitors or employees while they wait for the result.

Security screenings may also integrate with data generated from visitor smartwatches and wearable health devices to diagnose potentially dangerous fluctuations in heart rates.

Well ventilated, open plan offices and meeting areas

The circulation of fresh air and extraction or filtration (rather than recirculation) of stale air is essential to minimising virus transmission and will increasingly be built into office air-conditioning systems. Regulations concerning the level of fresh or purified air in the workplace are likely to be tightened for employers and construction companies.

Touchless surfaces and activity sensors

Automated exterior doors controlled by contactless apps or smart cards will limit the touching of shared surfaces, as will sensor-based light switches, heating controls and toilet flushes, soap/paper towel dispensers, taps and vending machines.

Wide corridors/staircases and navigational instructions

High-traffic areas like lobbies and entrance halls, lifts, corridors, toilet facilities and eating areas will see greater use of space to encourage social distancing. Handrails, handles, dials, switches and other physical components will be removed, while one-way navigational systems, which prevent people from mingling too closely, will be painted or projected onto walls, floors and ceilings.

Spaces will also be marked for where particular items of office furniture such as non-movable chairs, desks, printers, photocopiers and water coolers must be located, with appropriate social-distancing measures for people using them.

Hand sanitiser and face masks on tap

Easy availability of hand sanitiser and face masks on every floor, such as those already available in transport hubs, will encourage workers to stay safe and clean. Employees will be urged to bring their own food into the office, buy via contactless purchases from vending machines and eat in outdoor areas or shared indoor spaces protected by transparent screens.

Socially distanced hot desk zones with fixed wireless displays

Rather than touching shared PCs and keyboards, employees will bring their own portable computers into the workplace and use them within designated hotdesk zones with appropriate social distancing and/or transparent plastic screens between spaces. Those that need to can attach their devices to larger screens already in situ using wireless display technology such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi casting common to many TVs to prevent contact with shared equipment. Wireless charging technology will make power supplies easier to clean.

Increased use of outdoor spaces

Companies will increasingly use outdoor spaces for business purposes – unused parking spaces, courtyards, balconies and roof terraces for example – in much the same way that the hospitality industry did in 2020 to avoid people spending too much time indoors.
That could include covered areas with open sides for protection from rain and sun for example, but also heated tents/meeting bubbles for organisations based in less hospitable climates. Commercial property developers will incorporate more of these features into their designs to encourage outdoor working, as well as windows and doors that can be removed or opened completely to allow better air circulation.

Conferencing facilities will extend to VR headsets and avatars

Web conferencing and collaboration will play a much greater role in daily operations among a more distributed workforce. Hardware and software systems will scale up to support more participants concurrently and evolve to support more sophisticated forms of interaction through screenless displays and artificial and virtual reality, including the use of avatars for more personal interaction.

Automated robotic sanitisation

Better sanitisation will rely on more than just meticulous cleaning of all surfaces at more regular intervals throughout the working day. It will evolve to include the use of dedicated bots, which constantly roam the floorspace to clean areas used by departed workers, directed by automated alerts generated when security sensors or Wi-Fi location tracking detect the employee has left their hot-desk zone or the building.

Retractable/removeable doors or windows

Enable spaces to be opened up to improve overall ventilation, or closed off if needed to isolate small groups.

Reduced parking capacity

Smaller car parks needed as more people are encouraged to walk, cycle or take public transport to work.

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