Individual work booths versus open-plan offices – what’s best for managing Covid-19 risk?
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, open plan office interiors divided opinion. They began to be introduced in the 1980s, to maximise space, reduce the cost of office rental and to break down the barriers between teams. They allowed people to communicate with each other, exchange ideas and benefit from shared proximity. Some people love them because of the sense of collegiality they can help to foster. Human beings are social animals, and many of us find human contact in open-plan offices helpful to our wellbeing.
The other side of the argument says that people who tend to work better independently can find open plan offices something of a trial. They find it difficult to concentrate with so much going on, their productivity suffers, and they can gradually grow demotivated.
Which side of this argument you fall probably depends on your personality. From an employers’ point of view, there are productivity arguments to be made both for open-plan offices and more private ways of working. Open-plan offices can help keep people focused on their job, knowing that they are in an environment where they can be seen. Alternatively, individual working environments can allow for more concentrated work.
The open plan versus individual work booths argument post COVID-19
COVID-19 has changed so many assumptions about how we work. The open-plan office design had become the norm in workplaces wherever the layout of the building allowed for it. Now, the risks of so many people sharing space have changed all that. As people return to work, social distancing means that far fewer people can now use the office. It’s not impossible to use open-plan offices, but they will be much less populated, with large spaces between workstations. Ventilation will need to be increased, and a one-way system introduced.
In effect, this means that the open-plan office as a hub filled with people, working collaboratively, sharing ideas, moving around and being convivial is no longer realistic or desirable. That may change with the successful introduction of a vaccine, but for now, the open-plan office needs to adapt.
Cells, booths & pods
Whether you call them cells, booths or pods, they’ve been around for some time. These are modular structures placed within shared office space that can be used as individual workstations, or (prior to COVID-19) as places for small groups to meet.
The three-sided booth can radically reduce the risk of virus spread when combined with a one-way system and reduced office occupancy. A pod, with both a roof and a door, takes that even further, and, in theory, might allow for more people to work in an office space.
Pods are often soundproof, sometimes with clear sides that still allow the occupant to be visible, others with screening that creates greater privacy. Both, however, represent a radical change from the old open-plan office.
A new way of thinking about open-plan offices
The open-plan office may not be totally redundant, but it does look as if it’s about to evolve. With the intelligent use of office pods and booths, people can share an office, while reducing the risk of spreading the virus.
Hopefully, as the COVID-19 threat begins to abate, it may be that new shared spaces could be introduced creating a hybrid office that combines the best of open plan with opportunity for greater privacy. It could be an office suited to the new hybrid way of working that combines flexible office and home-based work.
The COVID-19 crisis has created a range of challenges for anyone who has to manage a workplace, but it also offers opportunities to rethink old assumptions about how we work.