1 May 2020 Courier Weekly

When we return to the office, what will it look like?

Businesses of all shapes and sizes have a completely new set of challenges to overcome.

As the founder of Motive Productions, a London-based studio that has designed offices for Beautystack, Desmond & Dempsey and Papier, Rosie Chatwin is used to creating spaces with ‘community and congregation in mind’. But now the 28-year-old has a completely new set of challenges to overcome.

For the stationery company Papier, Rosie explains, ‘We created a kitchen so that 100 people can eat together. A lot of that space will now have to become desk space again, which is something a lot of companies will be thinking about right now.’ She has also been rushing to find suppliers for freestanding hand sanitiser dispensers and vinyl floor markings, which her team will customise with brands’ fonts and colours.

In completely rethinking about ways to reconfigure offices, Rosie is not alone. If and when you return to your office or shared workspace – and some workers in European countries, including Denmark, Norway and Austria, already have – you’ll probably notice some big changes. Lots of founders are gearing up for social distancing, which will likely mean hand sanitisers, floor markings making sure people stand two-metres apart and establishing a flow of traffic.

Founders are also looking at how they can put in doors that open automatically so workers don’t have to touch them. In common areas like meeting rooms and kitchens, there might be fewer chairs and posted documentation of the last time they were cleaned. Over in the Netherlands, BeeSafe is helping companies implement social distancing rules in their offices by providing organisations and employees with up-to-date overviews of office occupancy via a digital platform.

For Brian Chen, the co-founder of New York-based ROOM, which launched in May 2018 selling prefabricated noise-proof phone booths, Covid-19 will speed up a pre-existing shift towards more flexible, hybrid office spaces. ‘Even before Covid-19, there were big problems with distraction in open-plan offices, and a need for hybrid offices with spaces for quiet work and privacy as well as collaboration,’ says Brian, whose company has seen revenues of more than $30m revenue in its second year. ‘One upshot of the pandemic is that companies will be even more reluctant to sign long leases, and there will be more pressure to create adaptive architecture: flexible spaces that can easily be reconfigured. Creative wall systems and dividers will be part of that, as will our booths, which can be installed in a few hours.’

These new offices might not be as beautiful as the ones we’ve become accustomed to. There’s already been a spike in demand for acrylic and plexiglass dividers and sneeze guards, with reports of three-month waiting times for plexiglass in the US. Demand is also booming for smooth, antibacterial materials, including bronze and brass but also newer materials like Sharklet, an antibacterial plastic sheet with grooves inspired by sharkskin.

Longer-term, the biggest impact from Covid-19 could be psychological, with roughly 17m workers in the UK having been forced to adapt to home-working, something 1.54m workers were already doing. ‘People have realised that they can actually do real work from home,’ says Gabriela Hersham, co-founder of Huckletree, a London workspace community in an industry that is particularly vulnerable. ‘We need to acknowledge that shift rather than fight it, and respond.’

Huckletree’s response has been to double down on adding value for members while they are working from home, from online masterclasses to ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions with successful founders, and the Renegade Academy, a week-long digital boot camp taking members through pitching, financing to taking products to market. ‘We can’t just be about desks, seats and funky colours anymore,’ she says. ‘Companies like ours will need to innovate more than ever, and prove that our communities have lasting value.’

Illustration: R. Fresson

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