8 ways COVID-19 will change Office Design for SMEs

COVID-19 has overturned working life. Busy commutes and face-to-face meetings have become a distant memory, while the use of online collaboration tools has skyrocketed with many of us working remotely. As the lockdowns eventually ease and offices start to reopen, both staff and visitors may be anxious about returning to close contact with others. Businesses must quickly adapt to new health guidelines that emphasize social distancing, sanitation, and flexibility.

Minimising virus transmission will be the top priority of office design, and our focus as a leading design & fit-out specialist will be to assist London businesses through this transition by providing thoughtful, creative and cost-efficient solutions to ensure that companies and their workforce stay safe.

1. Installation of air filtration systems

Good ventilation has been recognised as key to preventing the spread of COVID-19. High-end air filtration systems are likely to replace traditional air conditioning, which has been associated with virus outbreaks – a case reported by DCD showcases how air conditioning diffused infectious droplets between tables in a restaurant. Higher efficiency filters can help mitigate the risk of airborne pathogen exposure, so long as they are properly installed, sealed, and maintained.

2. More space between workstations

The most visible way offices are likely to change is in the creation of more space to comply with social distancing guidelines: bigger workstations with more space between them. Companies with open floorplans may need to rethink their office layout, separate desks with dividers, and add partitions around different workgroups to limit the spread of germs. Establishing one-way walking paths around workstations as well as in corridors, stairways and canteens are equally important precautions.

Some businesses may be considering a partial continuation of remote work, staggered shifts, and hot-desking to limit the need for additional space to accommodate for potential regulations of minimum space required per person.

3. Office rebuilds and new technology

The pandemic is creating new standards for office architecture and may even necessitate rebuilds. Wider corridors and doorways, more separation between departments, and more staircases will help avoid overcrowding. Office design will also incorporate creative visual prompts, such as color-coded flooring, to signal safe distances and which way to walk.

Similarly, companies may wish to introduce more contactless technologies to reduce disease transmission. From automatic doors and water taps to motion-sensor lighting, hands-free solutions may trickle down to less thought of details in office design, such as controlling blinds, ventilation, and even the elevator.

4. Sanitation and social distancing

In addition to more hand sanitiser and stringent cleaning, we will likely see an introduction of new policies that employees must implement to help prevent the spread of bacteria. Video conferencing, even from within the office, is likely to continue with limitations set to the number of people in meeting rooms. Crowding may be managed through staggered break schedules, and safety precautions put in place to minimise the number of common touchpoints, such as wearing gloves while using shared electronic equipment and restricting self-service in canteens and cafeterias.

Signage and visual cues will be important in the post-pandemic offices, indicating where to stand and walk to maintain social distancing, and reminding us to follow good hygiene practices.

5. Regular office deep cleans

To further support everyday sanitation procedures, companies may also arrange regular deep cleans. This involves meticulous cleaning and disinfecting of all surfaces and objects, with particular focus on elements that are touched frequently. Some cleaning service providers even use mechanical sprayers or thermal foggers that mist disinfectant into the air, although according to health experts thorough cleaning by wiping all surfaces should suffice.

In addition, companies can get frequently used surfaces treated with medical grade antibacterial lacquer, which can be manually applied or sprayed on door handles, light switches, furniture, bathrooms, elevators, and any other high-risk areas to protect against the growth of microorganisms and bacteria.

6. Construction during COVID-19

While self-isolation practices have been put in place in all operations that allow for remote working, construction requires in-person attendance. At Niche Projects, we carry out fit-out projects under strict regulations following the latest government guidance. Our top priority is the health and safety of our employees and contractors, as we continue to serve our clients and strive to maintain the exceptional level of service that our business is known for. 

7. Virtual design meetings

The design team at Niche Projects offers virtual presentations, design meetings, and even office viewings to our clients. While traditionally we meet in person to present space plans and designs, many aspects of the office design process such as the samples meeting and office furniture showroom can be done virtually in the short term. On-site showroom visits will be arranged by appointment only, ensuring our client is the only visitor in the space.

For those looking to relocate, many commercial real estate specialists have also turned to innovative methods to show properties when prospective clients are unable to attend face-to-face meetings. Some agents offer self-guided virtual office tours or go the extra mile by arranging virtual appointments, where they talk the client through a video viewing as they would do in person.

8. Mental health

Taking care of ourselves and each other should take priority at a time like this. While establishing what the new normal looks like, employers should not forget the mental health stresses coronavirus continues to cause to their workforce. Companies implementing mental health management strategies – such as encouraging open and honest communication, creating support groups, using technology to foster a sense of connectedness between home and office workers, as well as revisiting sick leave and PTO policies – will be better positioned as their employees return to the workplace.

The epidemic and fear of a potential new wave will have a far-reaching impact on the office environment, its design, and industry regulations. As we reinvent the office space to comply with vital new practices, we highly encourage all businesses to perform a space audit to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their staff now and in the future.