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Will Covid19 kill the open-plan hotdesk?

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

Anyone who has read my posts on LinkedIn is likely to know my loathing for Open Plan hot-desking. I have never understood the British fascination with this office layout, which I have always found inadequate for collaboration and abysmal for concentrated work. However, I think this open-plan obsession may be about to evaporate as we look toward life after Covid19 lockdown.

Some of the UK's sector leaders (WPP and Barclays) are already very publicly announcing that they expect to shift to a decentralised and flexible workforce as their standard mode of operation as Covid19 restrictions lift.

So why do we still need a central office workspace?

Covid19 has made a lot of the Mobile Knowledge Workers in the UK realise that they can work from home and see some of the benefits. When these people - myself included - then look forward to the time when they can board busy commuter trains for hours each day to work in busy offices, the first question has to be "what for?".

For me, the answer is two-fold:


Online collaboration with Hangouts, Teams and their rivals has improved dramatically in the last few years. But these products are still a substitute and support for face-to-face collaboration rather than as a replacement for it. Building Through Technology has taught me the value of relationships and communication, and - much like early mp3 music - you cannot compress these things into 2-dimensions and limited pixels without losing fidelity.

While I'm not sure that the adage about 70% of communication being non-verbal is entirely true, there are undoubtedly many ways in which we communicate and build relationships that cannot be conveyed or - more importantly - received via video conferencing yet.

No matter how many monitors you set up or how good your camera, you cannot adequately judge body language through a screen with a limited field of view. I find so much is lost in a video conference. Such as

· The interplay between two people who wish to be united but aren't entirely on the same page.

· The subtle "information leakage" from that presenter who seems confident but taps their foot like Fred Astaire at points in their presentation.

· How someone appears before they settle in a room and are ready to start the meeting.

I may never again jump happily onto Southwest trains to just to be "on-site", but I will undoubtedly still commute for face to face engagement and collaboration with our clients and our teams.

Working Environment

A sign on a garden office saying "Through Technology Global Shedquarters"
I like a good pun.... and a bad pun too.

But it is always easy to look at these things from within your own bubble.

I'm lucky to be a home-owner and doubly so to have built a garden office (lovingly known as Global Shed-Quarters) a few years ago. The separation that provides makes homeworking with five and nine-year-old boys much more manageable.

For younger or more junior staff or those living with prohibitively high housing costs, it is not reasonable to expect them to provide a working environment of their own or for that to be suitable for conferencing or concentrated work. That responsibility must remain with the organisation, albeit to a lessened degree.

Many people need to work alongside others to thrive. During the lockdown, I have been actively encouraging Through Technology teams to switch on their cameras for that added sociability. The importance of seeing a friendly face now and then is something I've learned that I need when working remotely.

Is it the same central office workspaces?

I think there are three key factors which will change our future workspaces:

Firstly, all indicators current show that the relaxation of Covid19 precautions will take a long time. The "only way out" is a vaccine or cure, and that is unlikely to be available until 2021. At that point, supply will need to be produced for the national/global population. So we will be returning to our headquarters offices with some social distancing rules and new habits in place, then ramping back up to maximum occupancy slowly.

Secondly, we can reasonably expect those that are lucky enough to have the right home working environment to continue to use it. Companies are likely to support this, given the anticipated reduction in real-estate expense it will generate. So overall, occupancy should reduce.

Thirdly, we can reasonably expect the remote working population to want still to travel for face-to-face meetings, social engagement and collaboration. They will look for an environment suitable for and focused upon these activities when they arrive.

What do today's workplaces look like?

Most client and supplier offices that I visit in London currently look a little like this:

An image showing the use of office space,  with 50% allocated to open plan hot desks and small areas for meeting rooms and social space
Today's Floorplate usage

A vast amount of the floorplate dedicated to Open Plan Hot-desking either entirely or by team/department with an occupancy ratio around 60% (e.g. six desks per ten people).

The next most significant area is meeting rooms. Not collaboration space, but literally "rooms for meetings". These are typically too few and centrally booked.

While designs include social space such as kitchens, these invariably open onto that open-plan floor, making them again unsuitable for collaboration.

When you suddenly take away the necessity and motivation to "fill a desk" for work, the shortcomings of this layout become clearer.

- Lack of privacy

- Lack of quiet

- Lack of collaboration space

I suspect we can also add another "lack". Namely the lack of "personal space".

Personal Space - Noun - The physical space immediately surrounding someone, into which encroachment can feel threatening, uncomfortable or unwelcome

Personal space varies significantly between nations and cultures, as well as between people living in urban and rural settings. With a year or more of Social Distancing under our belts, I suspect our society will subconsciously move toward an expanded personal space and for this to flow down into the design of the built environment around us.

How should the workplace change?

For individual work....

The need for focused work can be met for many through the continuation of homeworking. However, this does not absolve the employer of the need to provide a workplace suitable for individuals. Covid19 should change the focus to provision of a smaller number of better options for those those without homeworking capability and those who need a drop-in desk between collaboration sessions.

Where space is provided for individuals, its design should promote individual working, providing a focus space with the quiet required to get work done. A "do minimum" approach would be the provision of noise-cancelling headphones, and a "headphones mean do not disturb" policy. To achieve real improvement, organisations should consider creating personal spaces, perhaps as individual rooms or a more modern take on Dilbert-esque cube farms that are common in the US.

For Collaboration.....

Most of the organisations that I work with either have no collaboration space or, if asked, would point to their meeting rooms as well as whiteboards and tables in the middle of the open-plan space.

But, current meeting rooms are not natural areas for team collaboration. This is evident in several aspects.

1. Televisions and cameras are almost universally mounted together high on the wall, to display content to the room, instead of being at table-height to allow remote participants to "sit amongst" the room-side conversation. In some cases, the audio even comes from ceiling-mounted speakers, making any remote participant's voice boom down from the heavens like the voice of God.

2. Meeting rooms are designed so that everyone works together all the time. Whole-room participation is precisely what you want in a meeting, but when a team is working together for a day, pairing-off and breakout groups are the typical modes of operation.

3. Because of their design for short-term use, meeting rooms are often unsuitable for long-term occupation. For example.... not adequately covered by air-conditioning, located in the building core away from natural light and only bookable in 1 hour increments.

Rooms for meetings are still needed, but they don't necessarily fulfil the needs of teams of people that will travel post-Covid purely to work together.

Team collaboration spaces should be private, designed for more than an hour or two of use and with collaboration equipment that lets remote members "get amongst" the team in the room.

1. Televisions should be mounted adjacent to and on a level with meeting tables such that remote guests appear along-side, - not looming above - their colleagues. Conferencing cameras should be wide-angle, high resolution and mounted close to the action (see Jabra's excellent Panacast for an example). This will start to provide a more level playing field for remote and in-room participants.

2. Furniture should be provided and laid out for individual, pair and team working, including whiteboards as well as screens.

3. Areas should be fit for longer-term use, including fresh air, natural light and sufficient space. This latter point might become much more affordable as demand for city-centre office space wanes. They should also be bookable by the day/week/month rather than the hour, and sit alongside the traditional meeting-room with its discrete purpose.

So what does the "New Normal" workplace look like?

My view is that the workplace will change in response to the reduced individual occupancy, greater personal space and increased collaboration focus, resulting from Covid19. To something like this:

Another image of office space,  this time dominated by meeting and collaboration rooms.
Tomorrow's office floorplate

Reduced commuting and increased homeworking require a smaller office floorspace reflecting a reduction in overall occupancy.

In an office designed around individual focus and team collaboration, there is little to support the continuation of open-plan hot-desking.

Individual open-plan desks are replaced with Personal Space to enable those between meetings or without homeworking capability to work free of distraction. I would even consider a "do not disturb light".

Replacing the open plains of open plan, I would have a higher percentage of the floorplate dedicated to a mix of traditional meeting rooms and team collaboration rooms. The difference between these two options would be one of the facilities, layout and scheduling. Meeting rooms should be booked by the minute/hour while team collaboration areas should be scheduled by the day or half-day. Team rooms should also, as mentioned above, allow for collaboration in small groups as opposed to all at once.

Kitchens and social space could then be retained entirely for those social functions, rather than being treated as over-spill from the previously smaller (and typically inadequate) meeting and collaboration room provision.

Add to this much higher remote working capability and care from organisations to both provide homeworker with the right equipment and address any security gaps caused by the rush for business continuity at the start of the pandemic. I think a picture of the future office workspace starts to appear.

The next challenge is to ensure that the culture, policies and social cohesion required to work well in this "new normal" is re-enforced and supported as we move out of lockdown.


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