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What will office life look like in the future?

Despite the fact that so much is still unknown about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), many businesses around the globe have already begun drawing up plans on how to bring their employees back into the office.

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In this feature by Pacific Prime, we look at how office life could change for the millions of people around the world, assess whether remote working could become a more common arrangement to help save money and resources for employers and increase the wellbeing of employees.

Today, most work environments and office designs are based on modern, open-plan workspaces to promote collaboration and productivity. Work desks are typically laid out in rows to maximize teamwork and communication among members of the same team, with employees normally sitting no more than three feet from one another.

As many governments begin easing lockdown and restrictions, the main challenge faced by employers now is to figure out how to adapt these workspaces to ensure that employees can adhere to social distancing practices of at least six feet.

The six feet office solution

One such company that has risen to the occasion is the global real estate company, Cushman & Wakefield. The company has helped 10,000 organizations in China move nearly one million people back to work. The firm used learnings gathered in China, along with data from the World Health Organization (WHO), and the advice of medical specialists to develop an innovative solution for corporate offices called the Six Feet Office.

“The Six Feet Office concept is a prototype to showcase some of the ideas Cushman envisions companies around the globe will be adopting soon.” – Despina Katsikakis, Head of Occupier Business Performance

To test their solution, they first redesigned their own office space in the Netherlands to promote better hygiene and social distancing. The idea is that employees upon entering the office will find themselves guided along a path (similar to hospitals) etched on the floor, which is six feet away from others at all times. The path is marked by arrows that encourage employees to move around in one direction (clockwise), as this prevents individuals from crossing paths. The floor surrounding a workstation is marked by circles that visually indicate to passersby the zone in which they cannot enter. With these simple rules and guidelines in place, employees can feel safer that the workplace provides the safest work environment for them to excel in during the pandemic.

The way forward for businesses

The Six Feet Office solution clearly is a point in the right direction for many employers to possibly use when it comes to ensuring their offices are in line with measures for social distancing. However, with there being potential costs involved in revamping the office layout, some employers may have to look at alternatives.

Fifty percent of the workforce in the office

Some employers may have to apply changes in ways that don’t require a complete revamp. It could involve getting the employees to come into the office on separate days, so that not everyone is present at the office all at once. Managers could introduce a roster and split the workforce into two teams. For instance, team A comes in on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, whereas team B comes in on Tuesday and Thursday. For the following week, the two teams simply swap. Employees could also be given the flexibility to start work earlier or finish later to avoid entering and leaving the office with other workers at the same time.

Reverting to a closed plan from an open plan design

Another radical solution for employers is to revert back to the 1950s style cellular cubicles that separate individuals. The only problem is that it would go against the workplace trend seen in modern businesses.

For the last 15 years, cubicles have been slowly disappearing from the work environment, as open office models offer the best formula for workplace synergy. Open office plans improve collaboration and the exchange of ideas that result in better productivity. In the United States alone, seventy percent (70%) of all offices have low or no dividing walls, with information technology firms as early advocates of the open office model. The current pandemic may reverse this trend somewhat in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Simple solutions for better hygiene

Other than ensuring safe social distancing at work, employers may have to consider other measures that ensure the work environment remains clean and hygienic. Having hand sanitizer available at entrances and desks is deemed essential, but other solutions like a paper placemat could be useful.

For example, in Cushman & Wakefield’s office, employees are asked to take a paper placemat for their desk on arrival. The paper placement is placed on the work desk and at the end of the day, it is scrunched up and disposed of. This practice could help mitigate COVID-19 spreading on surfaces, especially at hotdesks.

Additional hygiene tips for the workplace can be found here from the WHO.

Applying architectural technology

The application of architectural technology can help in curbing the spread of COVID-19 within the office environment. Throughout history, cities and buildings have been shaped by disease. It was cholera that influenced the modern street grid and the third plague pandemic that changed the design of everything from drainpipes to building foundations.

With that said, companies may need to invest heavily in a new suite of contactless technologies and have them integrated into their office’s infrastructure as COVID-19 remains in the spotlight.

A real-world example is Zaha Hadid Architects’ new headquarters or the Bee’ah waste management company in Sharjah, UAE. This establishment offers a glimpse of the future for office design and hygiene. The infrastructure is fitted with ‘contactless pathways’, whereby employees rarely have to touch the building with their hands.

“We’ve looked to eliminate direct contact with communal services, right from the street to the workstation. I think we’ll see wider corridors and doorways, more partitions between departments, and a lot more staircases” – Arjun Kaicker, Heads of Analytics and Insights at Zaha Hadid Architects

Office doors use motion sensors and face recognition to open doors automatically, while lifts or a coffee can be ordered from an employee’s smartphone. With 80% of infectious diseases transmitted by touching contaminated surfaces, this hands-free future could catch on well with developers and existing businesses.

Is remote working the future?

With all that’s mentioned about what office life could resemble during the pandemic and beyond, it is also worth mentioning whether there really is a need to return to the office at all? What are the benefits for both employers and employees if remote working practices continue after the pandemic is over?

Employers shifting employees to working remotely

While a shift to remote working has been swift for many businesses, it may work so well that some may even consider making it a more permanent way of working. Already, employers have been debating whether it is necessary to pay office rent when employees can work from home just as efficiently. In the long run, businesses could save on overhead costs and other expenses. This financial gain for employers could help businesses survive the uncertainty in the months, or year ahead. For certain, every struggling employer would agree that every little saving counts towards a more definite and prosperous future.

According to the research company Gartner, nearly three in four (74%) of Chief Financial Officers and Finance leaders that were surveyed plan to shift at least 5% of previously on-site employees to permanently remote positions post-COVID-19, in a move to cut commercial real estate costs. Many businesses will be keen on taking advantage of the current situation as rent for office space in places like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Sydney, Melbourne, Paris, and other major cities are exorbitantly expensive.

“CFOs, already under pressure to tightly manage costs, clearly sense an opportunity to realize the cost benefits of a remote workforce,” – Alexander Bant, practice vice president, research for the Gartner Finance Practice

Employees are more content

For employees that prefer to work at home, the current arrangement could provide the best working experience for them. In fact, employees could be more content because their work-life balance is much better. Employees don’t have to wake up early or sit in time-consuming traffic every day, which can cause stress and affect work. Additionally, with employers doing their part to protect their employee’s mental health, the arrangement of working from home is likely to boost their productivity even further.

Saving money and time

According to a study done by the online recruitment platform FlexJobs, remote employees save as much as USD $4,000 a year from commuting, paying for office meals, and other miscellaneous expenses. Another precious commodity saved is time itself. With more time available, employees will feel at ease and less pressured to finish their tasks on time. This is likely to lead to better time management, but also more time spent with family at home. Employers that bestow trust and autonomy upon their employees are likely to yield better results in the long run as well.

Better prepared for all

As countries begin lifting lockdowns and restrictions, it remains to be seen what the outcome will be of the pandemic. What is clear now, is that there is room for employers to consider what office life will be in the near future and whether it would benefit everyone if arrangements for working from home becomes a more common practice. Employers will be better prepared for the worse in times of crisis and employees will be more technologically skilled and quick to adapt.

Pacific Prime can offer insurance solutions

Since the very beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Pacific Prime has been playing a crucial role in supporting businesses and managing claims that need processing. Our business insurance experts are on hand to provide impartial advice on solutions for your employees such as:

For businesses that require more information on employee benefits plans and wellness options, head to our corporate page.

Content Creator at Pacific Prime
Jimmy is a content writer who helps simplify insurance for readers interested in international private medical insurance. He is on a mission in Thailand to support locals, expatriates, and businesses by bring the latest news and updates to his Pacific Prime blog articles.

His expert view and wealth of knowledge on insurance can also be found in his blogs for China, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.