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Trend 12 June Jun 2020 0654 12 June 2020

Coworking, staggered arrivals and social distancing apps: how offices are changing in post-coronavirus times

Even after lockdown ends, many companies are still thinking in terms of a distributed office: employees working in the office, from home and from shared workspaces. The new post-Covid workplaces will rely on technology

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Companies will change amid hand sanitiser dispensers and frequent deep cleaning, but many are also thinking in terms of distributed offices: employees working in the office, from home and from shared workspaces

Some of these changes will be temporary, lasting just a summer (or at least we hope) but others will be with us for some time to come. As we emerge from the coronavirus health crisis, we can return to work but it may not be quite so simple - companies need to make workplaces safe and follow the protocols to prevent infections.

So how will our workplaces change after the Covid emergency?

The guiding principle is that we still need to maintain a safe distance from each other and this dictates what needs to change to ensure that meetings, shifts and lunch breaks can be carefully managed.

During the lockdown smart working swiftly became the norm and at some companies this is still the case, even after the return to work. In the long term, remote working does bring quite significant economic benefits: fewer workstations (though companies should still provide the equipment employees need to work from home), lower energy consumption, and savings on rent as less office space is needed.

Companies are designing a sort of distributed office: a network instead of a centralized location connecting employees in the office, home workers and those who log on from coworking spaces – and potentially also in rotation.

Companies are designing a sort of distributed office: a network instead of a centralized location connecting employees in the office, home workers and those who log on from coworking spaces – and potentially also in rotation.

However, the chance to reduce the number of workstations contrasts with the need to keep people apart in the workplace itself. This is the reason why, in recent weeks, a number of companies have been trialling a sort of distributed office, a network instead of a centralized location connecting employees in the office, home workers and those who log on from coworking spaces.

The figures seem to confirm this trend they tell us at Copernico, the coworking network that brings together 800 companies in Italy. “In the month of March alone, we have dealt with requests from 167 companies who are trying to rethink the way they design their office space.” To cope with this increase in demand during phase 2 of Italy’s deconfinement, the company has created WorkCare, a tailor-made service providing companies with a plan to adapt their workplaces to the new requirements.

A further example from Italy is bnbworkingspaces.it, brainchild of start-upper Roberta D’Onofrio. Think of a sort of Airbnb for coworking: homes that are normally rented to tourists for short stays are transformed into offices ready to accommodate workers who may even be from different companies.

To prevent workers touching surfaces, we can expect a proliferation in contactless and voice-controlled technologies

Though we are spending less time in the office, we can still expect changes in the spaces where we work.

It is highly likely that the new style office will feature many more high-tech tools. To avoid contact with surfaces we can expect a proliferation in contactless and voice-controlled technologies. Organising work in shifts, with some employees working remotely and others in the office, will need dedicated platforms.

When we go back to the office, we will undoubtedly come across apps and sensors that monitor air quality and the health of workers as well as controlling social distancing and where people move. Take a look at this example of the iComfort platform. Some companies have already developed apps in-house. The Generali group will provide its employees with an app to order lunch at their desks and to monitor movement through their facilities so that crowds do not form on entry and exit.

Companies who work in skyscrapers or very tall buildings will have an additional problem - it will be impossible to give up using the lifts

As summer arrives, we cannot take air conditioning for granted - it is a potential vehicle for transmitting the virus. No bans are yet in sight, but recommendations have been made. The Italian environmental health agency has drawn up a number of rules to safely use air conditioning: clean the filters, disinfect exposed surfaces, deep clean external motors and do not point the splits directly towards people, point them upwards instead.

Care must be taking during coffee, lunch and cigarette breaks. We may have to get used to eating lunch alone or at tables where social distancing can be observed. For coffee and cigarette breaks, take into account that moving along corridors towards outdoor spaces or the coffee machine will hinder social distancing, so wearing masks is recommended.

Companies who work in skyscrapers or very tall buildings will have an additional problem. Of course, it will be impossible to give up using lifts, but it is too risky for 5 or 6 people to ride up and down together in a couple of square metres. The bank Intesa San Paolo has set a limit of 4 people sharing a lift at one time, each one standing in a corner to stay one metre apart. This is feasible but the risk is that queues may form when people arrive or leave work. A possible solution is to stagger arrivals with employees arriving in groups 10 to 15 minutes apart, which also facilitates social distancing.

Of course, when they arrive hand sanitisers will be everywhere at the ready - the first small change that companies had to make and one that they are not likely to give up any day soon.

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