Experts say the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing employers to reconsider their office layouts, and the open-office style layout may well get the chop.
“While many organizations prepared for employee safety in other ways, the workplace was not designed to mitigate the spread of disease,” Steelcase, a furniture maker, wrote in a newly published brochure called “The Post-COVID Workplace.”
The open office layout has grown more popular over the last couple of decades as it enables firms to squeeze more workers into their workspaces, but with social distancing protocols now the norm, some businesses are said to be reconsidering the lack of walls.
“I think office space is going to change, [and] we will go back to putting shields between people,” Carol Bartz, CEO of Autodesk, told MarketWatch. “I think people are going to want protection.”
As such, it could be that the office cubicle is going to make a comeback. An article in Wired.com recently said: “The cubicle is making a comeback. One of the most important innovations (to reduce transmission) may turn out to be cardboard or plastic dividers that turn open-plan offices into something more reminiscent of the 1980s.”
But not everyone believes a cubicle wall will be enough to prevent the spread of infections such as COVID-19.
“The cubicle wall is not going to be a perfect barrier,” Peter Raynor, professor at the University of Minnesota’s Division of Environmental Health Sciences and director of the university’s industrial hygiene program, told Forbes.com. “It’s going to prevent those larger droplets from passing within six feet of the person in the next cubicle. From that standpoint, they’re good. Probably for the smaller aerosol droplets, the cubicle walls aren’t going to be much of a barrier. They don’t settle very fast, and they can remain airborne for long periods.”
Strangely though, separate offices and doors are not being considered by many businesses, even though they offer far more protection. Instead, more discussions are taking place about improving air circulation in office spaces.
“Generally, if you have more HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning], you’re going to tend to dilute the virus so there’s less of it to breathe on any given inhalation if it’s present in the first place,” Raynor told Forbes.com. He added that a higher proportion of air from outside, along with higher levels of filtration of recirculated air, could make transmission of the virus less likely.
“Planning paradigms of the past were driven by density and cost,” Steelcase’s COVID-19 brochure stated. “Going forward, they need to be based on the ability to adapt easily to possible economic, climate, and health disruptions. The reinvented office must be designed with an even deeper commitment to the well-being of people, recognizing that their physical, cognitive, and emotional states are inherently linked to their safety.”