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Back to the Future (of Workspace Design)

June 24, 2020

The Context

Workspaces have gone through waves of change in the past decades - from the fall of cubicle isolation to flexible working and sun-dappled open offices. Open offices still hold great promise for the future, but likely not in its pre-2020 state. Shifts in workspace design take shape day by day, with infection prevention being the main priority. The new standard for workspaces, even conceptually, is still up in the air.

The best practices to take from the pandemic are familiar to all – spread out desks and chairs, flexible work, regular disinfection, and more. We even have an article here about what workspaces are doing to get back on track. However, on top of temporary fixes, it might be worth thinking of how to redesign our work environment for good.

Workspaces should support our well-being instead of just being a place where we "go to work". How then do we optimize for both health and an office life while still in the midst of COVID-19?

Observations on Workspace Design

The most versatile tool for public spaces during the pandemic has been tape. 6-feet tape warnings remind people to stay distant.

The tape is useful on the floor, but we've seen all sorts of crafty ways to use it to create makeshift social distancing accessories as well. A German café got creative with pool noodles by taping them on their customer’s heads.

Hong Kong's commercial establishments also go to great lengths to keep their businesses running alongside the rules of distancing. For example, restaurants have installed plexiglass screens to separate dining booths.

"German café finds novel way to keep business afloat in age of social distancing"     Source: Euro News

Still, we should think further into how we can create solutions for the long-term, and this can be best supported by technology. Experts interviewed forFast Company's“The Shape of Tomorrow” series commented on changes in shared spaces. Andy Cohen, the CEO of Gensler, spoke about using technology to create a touchless, frictionless environment. These include biometric scanning, facial recognition, voice recognition for elevators, etc. Every child’s fascination with Edna Mode’s (from The Incredibles) office is now becoming a reality.


Edna's retina scanner. Source: Disney

Gesture technology is already a trend in public spaces, where a hand motion can release the perfect amount of soap. Digital access and tracking have been integrated with many office entrances as well. It's only a matter of time when similar solutions can be done at scale and available in more physical spaces.

“Technology, health and wellness, and ventilation are the three key areas that are coming up over and over and over again," said Andy Cohen.

In thinking through such solutions, Deborah Berke, an architect based in New York, was inspired by the spaces designed for the deaf. Places like that are usually well lit for signing and lip-reading and has lights to notify when people are coming in. The automated office facilities mentioned above promote an intuitive, hands-free way of meeting immediate needs, and that also create quality of life (and work) improvements in the long-run.

Joseph Allen, a professor at Harvard and co-author of Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity offers his perspective on the more intangible side of things – air particles.

“We need to increase the amount of air that’s coming in to dilute airborne contaminants. Schools are chronically under-ventilated. Most buildings are meeting this bare minimum ventilation standard. That needs to change.”

Ever since the “sick building’ era of the 70s, workspaces have been wary of poor air ventilation. Better air ventilation helps with lower disease transmission and better cognitive performance. Still, air ventilation improvement has never particularly gained widespread implementation, as most buildings still rely on recirculating air and keeping it trapped indoors. We can surmise that this has been for mostly economic reasons.


COVID-19 in some ways has unearthed issues in physical space that can be boiled down to whether going all-in on solutions for well-being is worth the cost. We've seen this in the past with other design initiatives like sustainability and accessibility. Dilemmas such as this can't be easily mended with tape.

Optimizing space is also important when it comes to social distancing. Some offices simply don’t have space to provide desks that are all 6-feet apart. Microsoft’s Envisioning Center came up with the “Next Generation Meeting Hexagon”, an open polygonal dome for meetings and video conferencing. The stadium seating in their Studio O+A is flexible to be physically altered, folded and interacted upon. Adjustable furniture is vital when the goal is to minimize space. Similar to the advancement of memory chips, furniture could become more compact, but still, be able to deliver more functionality than ever.


Source: Microsoft

That being said, “there is no way to design your way out of COVID-19.” This was addressed by Rachel Gutter of WELL Building Institute. The focus should also be on when, and not just where. Specifically, when it would be safe enough to start inviting people to workspaces again while acknowledging that perfect prevention isn't possible. It’s difficult to prevent disease carriers because sneezes are uncontrollable.

Also, a lot of safety measures adopted today can easily be eased, or even be forgotten, when the perception of threat dissipates. We've seen this in many cities in China, where life goes back to normal when things die down.

Despite the situational nature of where to work these days, it would be worthwhile for both business and workspace operators to transition some of these changes to complement their long-term visions for their space.

Reimaginings through clever design and technology aside, the future of workspace design will likely be centered on intentionality. Its occupants would also be inspired to be mindful as well of how they interact with space, and what space means to them and the community.

Beyond the Usual Four Walls

The hot topic has been on reinventing the office space, but we should also rethink our notion of a “workspace”. We've heard "work from anywhere" to refer to various flexible work arrangements, but generally still restricted to working from an office most of the time. But as most work has been from home for the first half of 2020, many have considered their home more like their office.

A workspace trend previously limited to Google campuses, we now live, eat, and sleep where we work. So why not introduce some of the features of workspace design to home design? Jak Studio of London has been on the ball with this workspace development by designing the L20 sofa, to suit the “home workplace of the future.” The sofa doubles up as a private work pod for at-home workers. 

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“What has become apparent is that homes and furniture needs to adapt, providing flexibility and daily changes of use so that we can embrace a new era of working from home.”

The sofa was designed for modern-day living and has ergonomic benefits as well. The bad news is, the sofa is currently just a concept. The good news is that they are in search of a commercial partner to mass-produce this prototype.

Our Conclusion

Plexiglass screens, pool noodles, and tape are great and all, but we shouldn’t stick to a temporary solution for a long-term reality. Despite the challenges of large-scale change, this transitional period we're in now makes for a great time to think about what workspaces mean to us - from the concept to the physical makeup. This allows us to go back to its people-centric fundamentals, and design for a future-proof workspace.


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