The Bartlett Real Estate Institute


Working miracles: The office design revolution [RIBAJ]

28 May 2020

Professor Alexi Marmot, Director of the Global Centre for Learning Environments BREI features in RIBAJ for their first series on post-pandemic design

Animated image of a future workplace Credit: Jason Lyon

In the UK, about 60 per cent of jobs are done in offices. Considering the future office after Covid-19 demands deep consideration. And we need to ensure that sustainability is also incorporated within solutions.

There are two key issues: how to manage the existing office stock; and how might the office change in the future. We do know that office buildings will have to be very flexible. Those that allow for flexibility will be the winners.

In the short term, social distancing would demand almost three times as much space as current norms to safely accommodate office workers. As this is impossible to deliver quickly, remote working will continue to be part of the short-term solution. Fewer people will go into the office every day. Some will become permanent remote workers, mostly working online from their homes. Others will split their work between home and office.

To accommodate everyone, we need to make better use of existing office space through intelligent ways of using buildings over time. That means scheduling work in the office so that people come in only when they really need direct physical access to certain people or technology. It may mean two shifts of work in the office - some starting early morning, others starting and ending later - or using offices over six or seven days a week, not just five. It will certainly require scheduling, management and control of entry and egress times. Fortunately, we can draw on over three decades of positive experience of remote work, telework, flexible work and smart work.

In the short term, there will remain an inevitable reluctance for people to squeeze back on to crowded public transport for commuting. There is a danger that the private car might re-emerge as the preferred way of commuting and that low-density office parks might again be perceived as especially attractive. While appealing for reasons of individual health, such trends would be a dangerous backward step in terms of planetary health and sustainability. 

In future, tall buildings - buildings that demand users squeeze into lifts - may become less desirable. New office buildings may tend towards lower rise so people can avoid lifts and use stairs (while observing social distancing), increasing their physical activity. Two health benefits: lower chance of transmitting the virus and less obesity by increased physical activity.

Office workers, along with architects, developers, planners and occupiers, will behave cautiously. It won’t be business as usual for some time.

Professor Alexi Marmot