Pandemic effect: Office design

Quadrangle and Human Space’s Wellness Ready program helps organizations plan for a safe return to working in offices. Image: Quadrangle and Human Space

TEXT Caroline Robbie, Quadrangle

In early June, The New York Times surveyed 511 epidemiologists on when we could return to a variety of everyday activities. Their common refrain was: “well, it depends.”

Of the epidemiologists, 54 percent said that society at large would return to working in shared office environments within three to twelve months. The survey results resonated. We’ve heard from clients—and our own staff—that there is an even split between those who want to return to the office on a limited basis, and those who are happy to continue working from home.

Global Big-4 consultancy PwC, one of our workplace clients in the UK, reopened their offices on June 8. Kevin Ellis, PwC’s Chair and Senior Partner, said: “We’re a people business and the virtual world isn’t a substitute for human contact in a business like ours.” They see their role as a wider community benefit, as their workforce helps to support local businesses. The problem is that, with the physical distancing required pre-vaccine, they will only be able to accommodate
15 percent of their workforce.

Overall in the office sector, there is no clear consensus about what the ideal size of the new workplace will be. If less than 30 percent of a workforce uses a space daily, will companies only lease a certain size of office, regardless of their actual staff complement? Will the central headquarters finally become, as professor Jack Nilles proposed during the 1973 oil crisis, a “Telecommunications Transportation Tradeoff” of linked satellite locations?

Certainly, the ratio of permanent spaces versus shared desks will change dramatically. Why assign a permanent workspace, when someone now works on a permanently part-time basis? Accommodating shift work over longer hours, to reduce the risk of infection, will necessitate more—not less—sharing of space.

As work-from-home becomes normalized as the safest practice, the current model of shared workplace may become a discipline-sharing model. Aligned architecture, design, construction, and engineering firms might enter into a joint lease agreement, based on time-sharing rather than defined physical footprints. How we use these smaller, time-based spaces will shift from being present on a regular basis, to being present with specific social and collaboration goals in mind. This would entail a change from thinking about time as the measure of work—to time as the measure of space instead.

Spending more time working from home is also going to change how homes are designed. In multi-unit residential buildings, we envisage that underused lobbies can be transformed into soft infrastructural hubs that enhance resilience and serve a variety of functions, including for informal meetings with work colleagues. Party rooms can become fully outfitted video conferencing facilities. We imagine that connectivity could become an enshrined rental right in the 2022 building codes—and the entire telecommunications industry could transform into a public utility and a basic human right. In our practice’s mid-rise and high-rise work, we believe that we’ll see elements of the WELL building design system making their way into the residential sector. Dedicated areas for working from home are likely to become a necessity, rather than an added marketing incentive.

Quadrangle’s proposal for a resilient infrastructure of shared social and work spaces to support highrise neighbourhoods.

Our colleagues in the Canadian real estate industry are seeing movement among tenants with lease commitments for space that is yet to be built out. They’re rethinking their plans and opening projects back up for design competitions. Work that was designed pre-virus is being put on hold, and some of it may never come back.

Howard Mark, co-founder of Oaktree Capital Management, said it best about the times in which we find ourselves: “These days, everyone has the same data regarding the present and the same ignorance regarding the future.” We find ourselves collectively in a world of unknowns. As for the future of office design? Like the epidemiologists say: “well, it depends.”

This article is part of our Pandemic Effect series. Our complete list of experts in this series includes:

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