In an overseas survey of what people missed most by not going to work in their office blocks, a common response was: people. This is why many futurists, while acknowledging that there will be a new world out there after Covid-19, think it highly unlikely that all those office towers – such as those that dominate the Sandton skyline – will soon stand empty.
People, as Streisand sang, need people.
But the pandemic has made it clear that the days of cramming dozens of people into crowded open plan offices are over. Offices of the future will have to be safe and healthy environments and among the measures to achieve this, flooring is destined to play an important part.
Commercial real estate giant, Cushman & Wakefield (C&W), with headquarters in Chicago, USA, was among the first office designers to respond to staff protection against Covid-19 by inventing what it calls “The Six Feet Office”. The company helped 10 000 organisations in China move a million people back to work after the intensity of the virus had abated there.
C&W rushed a rapid, one-week redesign of the company’s own office space in the Netherlands, to test the concept and encourage better hygiene and social distancing. The core premise of their new design is to ensure that six feet (1.8 metres) – the recommended measurement for safe social distancing – stays between office workers at all times. This placement was ensured through properly spaced desks but – importantly – also through flooring guidance, such as a circle embedded in the carpeting around each desk to ensure work colleagues are sufficiently separated.
Surely, such measures could inspire commercial flooring designers and producers to create innovative circles that would not only enhance an office interior but also complement the rest of the flooring?
C&W also incorporated arrows in the flooring design to encourage staff to walk clockwise only, in lanes around the offices – as healthcare workers in hospitals – to help avoid the spread of pathogens. Here again, the placement of versatile flooring, such as carpet tiles and LVTs, could be incorporated by astute designers as direction-indicators in offices while not losing the innovative patterns and features of flooring selected for clients’ offices.
Flooring producers also could expand their ranges by introducing more “informative rugs” to their ranges while “designer” door and entrance mats that catch dirt, moisture and bacteria from foot traffic could also become increasingly specified. The need for flooring materials that can more easily be cleaned – and disinfected – is also likely to become a top priority in commercial flooring.
Cushman & Wakefield adds: “As employees prove their competence in working remotely, they will grow less tolerant of workplaces that fail to promote health and wellbeing.” If you want competent staff to run your office, you must ensure their safety, employers will soon learn.
The journal, Architectural Digest, says while social distancing would seem to be a necessary future action, concerns about future viruses might encourage architects to design with an eye toward open spaces that enable and encourage people to spread out over their working areas. “Sneeze-guard” see-though partitions could provide protection while not instilling a sense of isolation, and here also each partition could feature specific flooring to brighten the workers’ cubicles.
Office designers might also have to include a staff gym and fitness rooms that can be used for yoga or other such classes in future. Here also appropriate flooring will open new markets for flooring producers and suppliers. In general, office designers will increasingly call on antibacterial fabrics and finishes, including those that already exist — like copper — and those that will inevitably be developed. This is also likely to be the case with flooring.
The office, as we knew it, might never be the same but new opportunities to stimulate the creators and designers of flooring are out there, ready to be grabbed. Many of KBAC Flooring’s suppliers were already committed to healthy flooring that eliminated harmful substances such as VOCs long before the pandemic struck – so expect more similar measures to come in future.
Offices also, it would seem, boost productivity. Research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found that offices boost productivity and that “chance encounters and interactions between knowledgeable workers improve performance”. Perhaps this is why “thought leaders” such as Google has headquarters designed to maximise chance encounters between staff, and why Facebook has thousands of employees in a single mile-long room.
And people do need the team-building and morale-boosting that working together in offices provide – even while keeping their distance. They need to know how the receptionist who had a life-threatening illness is feeling now, or how the tea-lady’s young son is doing at school. They need to show that they care. Company personnel will return to revamped workstations with the most essential motivating factor of all: empathy.