Voice-activated fridges and socially-distanced desks: What the office of the future may look like
Cramped open-plan offices and shared cutlery are out and automated cleaners are in, according to a startling new glimpse inside our post-pandemic offices.
With a number of coronavirus outbreaks stemming from workplaces, and many workers likely to work from home even after the pandemic, businesses across the world are already making major changes to comply with new public health guidelines and workers’ concerns.
But in a fresh sign that old-school offices are a thing of the past, US business analytics firm CB Insights (CBI) has revealed its predictions for how the coronavirus will overhaul offices.
Workers will notice big changes as soon as they step through their office doors, with receptionists wielding contactless thermometers and hands-free kiosks scattered through lobbies to monitor employees’ health.
CBI noted that some businesses have already brought in mandatory surveys to screen for coronavirus, which workers must fill out to gain access to their building.
These surveys can be administered via mobile apps and QR codes – special barcodes that direct users to online surveys.
However, CBI warned the surveys could fail to pick up asymptomatic carriers, while perversely increasing the risk of transmission by making people feel as though social distancing was less important.
“In the US, poor health costs employers $US530 billion annually, some of which can be avoided with better management of the transmission of illness,” the report said.
Vulnerabilities in open-plan offices were exposed in South Korea back in March when 94 coronavirus cases were linked to a single floor of a tightly packed call centre.
Moving forward, offices may reduce on-site worker numbers by as much as 50 to 70 per cent, as they rearrange workspaces to comply with new social distancing protocols.
KPMG Australia people and change consultant Emily Zammit last week wrote that major firms have already begun reconfiguring office layouts.
“We are in the early days, but it’s forcing us to think outside of the box and consider how flexible working and office space can be empowering from a revenue perspective and employee experience,” Ms Zammit said.
Companies wanting to monitor distancing by the minute may introduce sneeze guards between desks, in addition to technology that monitors foot traffic and staff numbers in particular spaces.
However, CB Insights admitted there were obvious privacy concerns.
“Employees may feel safer with people-counting technologies and sensors in place, but privacy concerns could cause unease about having “Big Brother” tech monitoring employees’ every move,” the report said.
Usual morning rituals may be outlawed as businesses try to reduce the number of workers crowding in one of the most-used workplace areas.
CB Insights expects companies to phase out communal cutlery for disposable alternatives, while appliances including fridges and microwaves may be spaced out to improve social distancing.
More innovative companies could also replace older appliances with voice-activated alternatives, limiting the requirement for workers to touch shared surfaces.
When it comes to elevators, strict two to four-person limits are expected to become commonplace, with companies in Asia already adopting the measure.
Air filtration within elevators would also become a key concern to protect workers from breathing in harmful airborne particles that carry the coronavirus and other hazardous diseases.
Arguably the biggest challenge facing offices is integrating those working from home into the daily business cycle.
With around three in four workers expected to ask their employer for permanent flexible arrangements, according to HR provider Adecco, the standard conference room would require a major shake-up.
University of Melbourne Associate Professor in Property Chris Heywood told The New Daily larger corporations will make this transition easily, as they have already embraced what he calls ‘activity-based working’.
“They’ve now got a lot of inherent flexibility in how they use their workplaces, so I think those who have already made that investment will be able to make that transition quite easily,” A/Prof Heywood said.
Although workers have become accustomed to video conferencing calls through Zoom in the pandemic, CB Insights said relying on the bare minimum long-term could drain employees through ‘Zoom fatigue’.
To combat those concerns, other tools already used by brands including Netflix and Spotify – which replicate whiteboards and minutes-taking – can reduce the mundanity associated with Zoom, they said.
Other software could simulate chance environments to ensure those who work remotely engage with office banter.
Worker hygiene is expected to be a critical concern for businesses as they reintroduce employees to offices, with hand sanitisers and disinfectant wipes to be in ample supply.
Enterprising businesses – and germaphobe bosses – may be inclined to introduce autonomous cleaners to ensure shared spaces not only remain spotless 24 hours a day, but reduce the risk of infecting workers.
Self-cleaning doorknobs could also become a standard feature.