Here come hot desks and zoom rooms. And holograms?

Published Fri, Apr 2, 2021 · 05:50 AM

SINCE the pandemic sent workers home last year, a slew of modifications have been made to office buildings to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. Now, as companies prepare to bring workers back, experts say even more changes are on the way.

Expect expanded gathering spaces and fewer personal workstations, for instance, changes that are being fuelled by the success of working from home. Companies such as Google, Microsoft and Walmart have already announced proposals for hybrid work models that will allow employees to continue to work remotely at least a few days a week.

These new arrangements mean companies may need less office space, and some have already cut back on their real estate needs, according to a survey from the consulting firm PwC. Target said this month that it was giving up office space in downtown Minneapolis, and in September, the sporting goods retailer REI sold its newly built headquarters in Washington.

"We really are at an inflection point," said Meena Krenek, an interior design director at Perkins+Will, an architecture firm that is revamping offices, including its own, for new modes of working.

Last spring, while lockdowns were in place, landlords and tenants prepared for what they thought would be a return to the office in the summer and fall. Desks were dragged 6 feet apart and Plexiglas barriers installed between them. One-way arrows were stencilled on corridor floors, chairs were removed from conference rooms, and an elaborate choreography was developed to determine how and when teams would return to avoid overcrowding.

Then many workers simply stayed home. As the pandemic dragged on and people got the hang of Zoom, many discovered it was possible to be productive while parked on living room sofas or in backyard lawn chairs.

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Hybrid model for post-pandemic workplace

Now, as company heads are again planning for a return to the office, not only safety measures but also the new work arrangements are driving discussions about the post-pandemic workplace. More than 80 per cent of companies are embracing a hybrid model whereby employees will be in the office three days a week, according to a new survey by KayoCloud, a real estate technology platform.

Workplaces are being re-imagined for activities benefiting from face-to-face interaction, including collaboration on projects and employee training, as a way to promote a company's culture and identity.

Common areas will be increased and equipped with furniture that can be moved as needs change. Steelcase and Knoll, suppliers of office furniture, report strong interest in mobile tables, carts and partitions.

But as the amount of space devoted to gathering expands, the fate of one's own personal turf at the office - a desk decorated with family photos, a couple of file cabinets - hangs in the balance. Why, company leaders are asking, should someone who is in the office one or two days a week require a space that will sit empty the rest of the time?

In some cases, personal desks are being replaced with "hoteling" workstations, also called hot desks, which can be used by whoever needs a place to touch down for a day.

Conference rooms, too, are getting a reboot. In the past, these rooms were predicated on the idea of people gathering in person. A large screen on a wall might be used for presentations or to let an executive in another location make a cameo appearance.

But some employees are permanently moving to remote work, and companies are puzzling over how to give them the same ability to participate as those who are physically present. There are even early discussions about using artificial intelligence to conjure up holographic representations of employees who are off site but could still take a seat at the table.

For now, some companies are having in-person attendees continue to use their laptops so that remote workers can see everyone on their Zoom screens, an effort to "help maintain a sense of equivalency that we've come to expect", said Peter Knutson, chief strategy officer of A+I, a design firm.

Transforming the conference room into a Zoom room

Devices combining 360-degree cameras, microphones and speakers are being placed on a table or tripod to improve sound and visibility. In the future, these technologies are likely to be built into gathering places and the number of screens increased, transforming the conference room into a "Zoom room", Ms Krenek said.

Modifications made to offices to protect against the coronavirus are still in effect. Stopgap measures, such as floor decals to encourage distancing and virus-zapping technologies such as ionisation and ultraviolet light, may fade away but others will be here to stay.

Increasingly, moving through an office building is likely to be a hands-free experience aided by mobile apps, sensors and voice controls, even after the reluctance to touch surfaces diminishes.

Sensors will allow employees to enter a turnstile and summon an elevator with the wave of a hand. Landlords who have yet to invest in such systems have experimented with foot pedals to activate elevators. Buttons on walls outside restrooms can be pressed with an elbow, averting the need to touch door handles. Some companies are adding foot-operated door openers.

The coronavirus has focused attention on air quality in what may be a lasting way. Outdoor spaces - roofs, terraces and courtyards - were popular before the pandemic and have become more so as fresh air has gone from being a nicety to being a necessity.

Landlords have, in some cases, adjusted HVAC systems to increase the amount of outdoor air being pumped in. They are also upgrading filters to trap smaller airborne particles.

Some measures are being enshrined in leases, said Geoffrey F Fay, a real estate lawyer with Pullman & Comley. But landlords are doing such things proactively, he added, as they try to make offices as enticing as possible at a time when tenants may be wondering if they even need to rent space anymore.

"Landlords realise we are on the precipice of change," he said. "They want to make employees feel comfortable to the extent they're coming back to the office." NYTIMES

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