Thanks to COVID-19 Office Planners may finally be forced to give up on the Open Concept work environment. For those not sure of the term Open Concept is where the team workspace is ope. There are few if any walls and all can easily see each other and speak to each other. The concept was supposed to create more communication and co-operation between team members.
I have lived in these environments throughout my 35 years of working in office spaces. I have loathed the concept completely. There is no privacy, there is no sense of personal space, and you get to learn far too much about your co-workers lives. In some office models this idea can work well. If the team is a support team that all share tasks, however, that is the exception, not the rule.
The nicest office I had, was when I first graduated. It was large and had a locking door. Every office since then has been worse. For COVID19, open concept offices are the worst design. One might even argue, that it is an optimal design for the spread of germs, viruses and rumours.
Erin Bromage wrote an excellent essay about the spread of COVID19, “The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them“, he points to a CDC paper, “Coronavirus Disease Outbreak in Call Center, South Korea“, which has an office lay out that is similar to many now set up in many different companies.
The figure shows how the proximity of folks sitting near each other spread the COVID19 very quickly. There were very few walls and impediments to the air borne spread of germs.
The direct quote from the CDC report is:
This outbreak shows alarmingly that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) can be exceptionally contagious in crowded office settings such as a call center. The magnitude of the outbreak illustrates how a high-density work environment can become a high-risk site for the spread of COVID-19 and potentially a source of further transmission.Coronavirus Disease Outbreak in Call Center, South Korea
Anyone who has worked in this kind of environment knows full well that once someone on the team picks up a cold or the flu, it will easily cycle through the group, so this information is by no means surprising to me.
September and the start of school usually meant someones child would bring home a new flu or cold, which would then be passed to their parents and then throughout the team sitting in close proximity (as a crude example).
The alternatives is going back to a more segregated model, where teams may be in proximity but they are closed off from other groups (and hopefully each other) using walls. This is a less optimal use of space, however, now the argument of passing of disease can no longer be easily ignored.
Companies that have this configuration are now scrambling to alter their floor layouts to allow a resumption of work in a safer workspace (safety from virus spread). I have already read of temporary walls, and plexiglass going up, but these will end up only being interim solutions.
There will be a great deal of money spent to retrofit these office spaces. Open Office was the office space of tomorrow, are they now the office space of yesterday?
Of course there are, Bloomberg is of the opinion “Why Open Offices Will Survive“, seems more like optimistic hoping on their part.
The Associated Press seems to be more on my side with, Cubicle comeback? Pandemic will reshape office life for good.
The death of the open office should be cheered, I hate them. They kill productivity and are just disruptive and annoying, even cube farms are better.
But I don’t think we’re going back to that either, I think it will be a combination of cubes, with shared spaces and a significant number of people working remote. You can find a good balance in that setup that will allow for the best of all worlds.
As long as I don’t have to hear my neighbour argue with his Ex-wife about how she is ruining their kids’ lives, that is all I ask…