FOCUS ON

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Would open-space and COVID-19 agree to live together in 2021?
1 Feb 2021

As part of the renovation of the Palais des Nations, staff at UNOG are due to move to the new H building which features open space and hot-desking, during the first quarter of 2021.

The Covid-19 pandemic is giving rise to many concerns and fears among staff at a time when the literature remains very divided regarding the means of transmission of the virus. In order to get an answer to some of staff concerns, we have interviewed Ms. Sarah Holder who is a writer for CityLab in San Francisco (a company that belongs to Bloomberg News), focused on urban politics, housing, and work. Ms. Holder shared with us her interesting views in total objectivity and frankness.

What are your views on the future of hot-desking in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, and at a time when science is still struggling to understand how viruses like COVID-19 are transmitted? 

While there’s a lot we don’t know about Covid-19, a few things are abundantly clear: The virus spreads through aerosol transmission, among people who are unmasked and close together, especially in indoor environments that are poorly ventilated. At this point, when cases are still surging in many countries, and before the vaccine has been fully rolled out to every population, coming back to any indoor office environment without introducing new safety measures poses some risk. An analysis of an outbreak at a South Korean call center in March shows this reality well: of the 216 people who worked on the same floor, 94 got the virus after one colleague tested positive.

In a post-vaccine world, I do think there will be more of an awareness of the way sickness spreads through spaces — hopefully, some of the pandemic-era safety measures like ventilation system upgrades will be maintained. 

The much bigger question is whether companies that have learned to operate remotely will forego physical office space entirely or allow some employees to work from home while keeping others in the office. In the latter scenario, it’s likely that companies that previously had an open-plan layout will maintain some sort of distance between desks — already, designers and architects are reconfiguring spaces so that instead of 8 to a bench, companies may reduce capacity to 3; instead of allowing people to work elbow to elbow or face to face, companies may install clear plexiglass partitions. Desks that were previously unassigned may become assigned to individuals, who will be tasked with cleaning their spaces at the end of each day.

One of the other things that will help people stay safe regardless of floorpan is offering more paid sick leave and good health insurance and maintaining flexible remote working policies. When people know they don’t have to come into the office while feeling sick because they’re not afraid of losing wages or their job, they’ll be healthier and avoid spreading viruses — whether that be Covid-19, or the common flu — to their colleagues. 

Do you think hotdesking spaces can really promote physically collaborative working now that social distancing has become the norm?

I think there’s disagreement about whether open offices are the best way to promote collaboration — some studies show physical proximity comes at the expense of concentration and work satisfaction. But I do think the importance of having a physical office space to come together with colleagues and work collaboratively is a concept that will survive the pandemic, even if it’s punctuated with more frequent remote meetings or is abandoned by a few more digital-first companies.

Do you think that vacating every second desk or imposing partitions might defeat the point of open-plan offices? At this point might standard offices be more appropriate?

One of the benefits of open-plan offices to employers is that they cut down on real estate costs by allowing them to maximize the number of employees in a smaller space. Even with more physical distancing within that space, or with the introduction of new policies that bring in limited numbers of employees each day of the week, open offices will likely continue to cost less than retrofitting offices with walls and cubicles.

But as Brian Chen, the co-founder and CEO of the office-pod company ROOM, told me, if workers are suddenly used to working from the comfort of their home all the time, there’s an increased burden on the office to be “a better environment than your home.” That means fewer distractions, more personal space and privacy, better amenities, and no fear of infection.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, frequent online meetings through Zoom and Teams have become the norm, made more so through travel restrictions that will likely remain for budgetary reasons. How do you see these online meetings being possible in an open-plan office?

Already, workers in open offices were taking calls and attending virtual meetings in open office plans, utilizing shared call rooms or sound-proof office pods for privacy, a practice that will likely continue post-pandemic — if offices figure out how to properly sanitize pods between use and air them out safely. I’ve spoken to some designers who have talked about the advent of Zoom rooms — spaced-out conference rooms outfitted with extra technology to facilitate video meetings. Many employers have already been experimenting with phased reentry, which means there will be employees in the office that will need to collaborate closely with colleagues that are still at home taking care of kids, elderly relatives, or that are just not needed back at the office yet. So I think video conferencing will need to continue to be possible at a much higher volume.

* Julián Ginzo is the Editorial Coordinator of UN Today.
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