With social distancing measures in place, organisations need to reimagine the role of their open plan office space to create a safe and productive environment for their employees.
From health and wellbeing to activity-based design solutions, input from the HR function can shape a new era of workplace sustainability.
As populations and urban density grow, the risk of future pandemics will remain inevitable. COVID-19 has permanently disrupted the way we work and continues to challenge large centralised offices’ suitability. On a global scale, employees are asked by their employers and/or encouraged by the governments to work from home. As a result, remote workforces are becoming the new normal and the open plan office space is in danger of becoming impractical, or even redundant, unless changes are made.
However, it is unrealistic to get rid of open plan offices completely, especially in Hong Kong where apartments are relatively small and working from home is only a short-term solution for many employees. Design solutions informed by new working patterns are required to mitigate these challenges.
The need for change
In Hong Kong, change will have to happen more quickly than many other places. In a city where space is both limited and costly, obsolescence is not an option. The task designers face is reinventing the open plan office to meet the needs of a post-COVID work environment. But first it is worth considering the growth in popularity of the open plan office around the turn of this century. This may help explain why simply reverting to enclosed offices isn’t necessarily the most practical solution.
Open plan design started trending in the 90s during the dot com boom when start-ups were looking for low cost, quick office solutions which maximised seating capacity. The open plan office quickly became the standard office design for dot com giants, from Yahoo! to eBay.
Advanced telecommunications technology arrived in the early 2000s and the open plan format quickly emerged as more than just a cost option. The new decade of connectedness created demand for bespoke open plan office design. Custom designed open plan offices became fashionable and appealed to millennials, whose core values revolved around social engagement and teamwork. Until COVID-19 disrupted working norms, a trendsetting open plan office design was highly sought after and was often a big part of a company’s corporate identity. In pre-COVID times, up to 80% of offices around the world were of open plan design.
Over the past two decades, architects and interior designers have had fun developing a wide range of creative approaches to open plan office design. We have seen tables grouped into neighbourhoods, conference room cabanas and hot desking, to name but a few. Organisations have also embraced sociable working environments in an attempt to boost employee collaboration and productivity. Google is renowned for its iconic open plan workspaces which promote “casual collision” among employees to unleash creativity.
However, skyrocketing office rents have led to a need for more cost-driven and practical use of office space. The more recent open plan office designs in Hong Kong maximise seating by blending open and closed office layouts. The aim is to maintain the open plan characteristics through creating dynamic, activity-based working environments which allow different work styles to mingle.
The pros and cons
One of the disadvantages of the open plan office design is the one-size-fitsall format. Employees who work in different ways on various projects are expected to work in the same space. A study by The Harvard Business School in 2018 highlighted that an open plan environment can trigger withdrawal for those who crave less social contact. According to the study, “when firms switched to open offices, face-to-face interactions fell by 70%”. Instead of communicating in person, employees have been turning to their computers and digital devices, increasing their email and instant messaging usage.
There is a growing interest in escaping the distracting noises often endured in an open plan office, in order to increase productivity. An appetite for closed or more socially distanced workspaces is set to grow as a result of COVID-19. Protecting public health is now a primary concern as we fight the pandemic and look to guard against future shocks. Social distancing has now emerged as a top priority.
However, social distancing impacts most heavily on occupant capacity and this poses a big challenge for open plan office layouts. In space-tocost conscious Hong Kong, increasing office space to accommodate social distancing would be especially expensive. On the other hand, reducing the number of employees in the office by making use of work from home arrangements could be impractical. Many employees either don’t have the option of working from home and/or reside in overcrowded apartments. This reason alone could guarantee the survival of the centralised office in Hong Kong.
Insights from the HR function
If the open plan office is out of fashion but offices remain a part of most organisations’ future, what will they look like? Before putting pencil to paper, designers and HR professionals need to come together to define the best ways of working and utilising office space according to the business nature.
The HR function’s understanding of the different work cultures among various groups in the office would be of tremendous value to designers. The HR function could also play a key role in relaying the expectations of the employer and employees to the designer. An in-depth understanding of a company’s objectives regarding occupant capacity, fixed and remote working practices, use of technology and office culture, is key to successful office design.
As they overcome the psychological impact of COVID-19, employers and employees will naturally want to prioritise wellbeing, and good design can help them achieve this. Rather than going back to the cubicle office’s isolating physical barriers, designers can deploy social distancing as an invisible barrier. This can ultimately help a company determine how big their corporate real estate footprint needs to be, in both the short and long term.
At the most basic level, hygienic and socially distanced workstations will provide protection and peace of mind. Beyond that, flexible working arrangements and quality of office space in terms of natural light and ventilation will top the design targets list. Easy to clean and eco-friendly materials can also help create more comfort.
Redistribution of space
COVID-19 has altered perceptions regarding the way we work. Ultimately, downsizing, upsizing, and the redistribution of space are inevitable. As a result, companies will start to shed space they no longer need. Where a remote workforce is impractical, an organisation may require more space to implement safe and socially distanced work environments. In Hong Kong, employees may require a third option when full days in the office are unnecessary but working from home is not feasible. Organisations will inevitably have to expand, contract or redistribute space in order to achieve the optimum financial balance.
In a post-COVID world, sustainable open plan environments could help employers and employees prioritise flexibility as they redesign the role of the office. This presents an opportunity for organisations to come together to create innovative solutions. A hybrid approach could be among those. This would involve pairing organisations to achieve the best economic use of space.
One example could be combining an open plan office space with hydroponic farming, which in the process would create added value through a healthier office space with green credentials. This could help prepare the way for a new age of open plan environments that prioritise sustainability and wellness. Thanks to Hong Kong’s crowded urban business landscape, the future of open plan office space in the city could be a pioneering paradigm that inspires others to follow.