Companies open to the idea of major office redesign as they adapt to the new normal of social distancing

Cheryl Arcibal
·3-min read

After more than a year of working within the constraints of the coronavirus pandemic, an increasing number of companies are recognising the value of providing their staff various space options, showing how they are adapting to the new normal of social distancing and hybrid work arrangements.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for a range of options including enclosed, private spaces has never been more pronounced, according to a study by US-listed furniture-maker Steelcase. These changes can include privacy walls, panels and dividers within the office and even stand-alone enclosed workspaces, a major shift from the open space, flexible and shared desks that have become the standard office design and layout in recent years.

With health and safety followed by air quality and facility cleanliness the top consideration of employees, companies and organisations were more willing to initiate design changes in workspaces, according to the study that included more than 32,000 participants from Australia, Canada, China, France Germany, India, Mexico, Spain, the UK and the US.

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“As companies begin to move beyond emergency infection control measures, they are looking at potential workspace changes and thinking about office space differently,” said Uli Gwinner, president of Steelcase Asia Pacific. “What we are seeing from businesses is demand for flexible workspaces, which could help companies grow strategically to prepare for an unpredictable future.”

Demand for flexible workspaces is growing, says Steelcase Asia Pacific president Uli Gwinner. Photo: Handout
Demand for flexible workspaces is growing, says Steelcase Asia Pacific president Uli Gwinner. Photo: Handout

Top executives in China strongly agree that the need for flexible/modular furniture would increase, the study showed.

“Our research told us employees’ expectations for the workplace have changed and decision-makers’ interest in potential workspace changes have increased,” said Kamlesh Malkani, managing director of Steelcase Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. “The vast majority of business decision-makers are expressing an increased desire for privacy walls, panels and dividers within the office, while new stand-alone enclosed workspaces will need to match the performance of focusing at home.”

These changes however do not mean that individual spaces in the open and collaboration spaces will be obsolete, but there “will just be a shift to more individual spaces with greater safety measures and more collaboration spaces in the open to provide greater flexibility.”

While the changes might need major retrofitting of offices, Steelcase suggests minor tweaks that companies can do in the meantime to ensure social distancing. These include adding mobile furniture that can be easily moved and reconfigured, large-scale collaboration devices and movable screens and dividers.

Anticipating the demand for mobile furniture and the shift from “fixed to fluid”, Steelcase said it increased mobility in its designs such as furniture, power chargers and screens that allow organisations to respond to disruptions and changes quickly.

Refreshing the office designs to adapt to the new normal is likely to boost employee morale, but not everyone can afford to do so at the moment, according to Kelvin Hui, director at Hong Kong-based architecture firm LWK + Partners.

“There’s a bit of a split between companies just managing to stay afloat under the current economic conditions in Hong Kong, and those with a stronger financial base or whose business is delivering well,” Hui said.

“For companies that have the capacity to renovate, refreshing the workspace can be a morale booster for employees. It offers motivation, a sense of hope and impacts positively on client perception.”

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