ABC News: How has the pandemic affected the future of workplace design?

Written by Angela Ferguson


In May of 2020 the global pandemic was only a few months old.  Many businesses had sent their people home to work, and it was anticipated that this would be a short-term situation. Little did we know at the time that it would be two years before we’d start to see any sort of significant return to the workplace, in any form.  

Angela Ferguson spoke to the ABC TV News Channel about considerations for workplace design post COVID19, the future of office design and what businesses would need to do to prepare for a return to work, post pandemic.  To supplement the interview, a more detailed Q&A that occurred with the show’s producers is below – it’s intriguing to compare what we know now to what Angela was predicting then.

What does COVID-19 mean for workplaces?

The global pandemic will mean that the way we work has changed forever. Much like 9/11 changed the way we travel, there will be a lot of new measures in workplace design related to wellness, social distancing, shared spaces, how and where we meet, mobility and agility – these are all things that are up for grabs in terms of workplace design going into the future. Absolutely everything will need to be rethought in terms of the way we work – even down to the really simple things like queuing for coffee or toilets.

There’s been a shift to open plan offices, with small meeting spaces …. do you see expensive refits after this?

There’s definitely been a move to denser, more populated, open plan workspaces up to this point, with lots of sharing of furniture and equipment and spaces. Going forward we will need to think about changing behaviours, about rethinking benchmarks and space standards and looking at how the way we used to use the workplace can be maximised. Short term modifications to existing workplaces don’t need to be expensive, often it will be a change in behaviour or a repurposing/reengineering of an existing piece of furniture or equipment. Expensive refits are not necessarily needed to be post COVID19 ready – rather people will be much smarter about how they ‘hack’ their existing workspaces.

Are there cheap fixes for the interim?

 No-one really knows how long this will go on for, but it’s safe to say we need to plan for the short term, medium term and long term future when it comes to renegotiating office design. The short term fixes will be easy to implement, such as only occupying every second desk, or putting up screens between desks or different areas, adding signage and floor markers. Behavioural changes will be a critical part of workplace health and safety, such as encouraging clockwise circulation paths to minimise cross-contamination of anything airborne.

Medium term initiatives including adding more built rooms, whether they be for meetings, collaborative working or individual use.

Longer term initiatives such as a higher use of telepresence to minimise travel will cost more, but the expense of setting this up may be offset against reduced travel costs.

Open plan often relies on hot desking …do you think we’ll need to change the way we work in the future?

 Absolutely. A lot of workplaces had become overcrowded and inefficient, as people tried to circumvent hot desking by reserving space and equipment, and this really defeated the purpose of a shared environment. Workplace hygiene was increasingly a concern for many organisations, even prior to COVID19. We will definitely work differently post this pandemic and hot desking will be a thing of the past.

If spaces, desks and other workplace facilities are to be shared in the future there will need to be protocols in place for single use, ‘per day’ type scenarios. Businesses will need to really carefully plan their staff’s return to work, looking at the characteristics of how their people work and why they would even consider coming back to the office in the first place.

As people across the world have been predominantly confined to their homes there has been a real resurgence of nostalgia. This speaks to a desire for a simpler, slower life and could even mean that we look to the past when it comes to office design, potentially ending up having private offices again with smaller, more individually allocated space, rather than so much shared space and amenity.

Is everyone in your company working from home? How’s it going?

We are! We made the decision to send everyone home around the middle of March and have been all working from home ever since. Our team has been working remotely on various projects across Australia, Asia and NZ for more than 10 years now and so we’ve already tried and tested a lot of tools and systems. Due to the pandemic we adopted a ‘new normal’ pretty quickly, but it has definitely had its ups and downs. 

Some weeks, or days, are better than others of course, however it’s been a great opportunity for us to figure out what works well and what doesn’t. We do a daily zoom catch up with the entire team, and it’s really starting to flow well now and feel natural. 

 Do you think working from home could continue … in some form?

Working from home at such a scale has given a lot of businesses the opportunity to really test how this works and to then start to determine how to blend ‘home working’ and ‘office working’.

Pretty much everyone is working remotely now and because we are all globally in the same situation, it’s faring better than most people expected. The real test will be when we go part of the week back to the office and then stay home part of the week, and you have a lot of different people blending different scenarios, physically and virtually. That’s when design will need to play a really important role in creating appropriate and relevant workspaces – both at people’s homes and in the central business districts.