How coronavirus will change the way we work

The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact upon many of the habits and customs that underpin our society, with few places as disrupted as the workplace. Coronavirus has upended working life, changing how and where people do their jobs, and masses of us across the UK and across the world have been confined to our homes where we've attempted to maintain business as usual to the best of our abilities.

But with governments and companies around the world looking to ease lockdowns, many of us are starting to envision a time when we can stop working at home and return to the office. Yet in the absence of a vaccine, the biggest challenge that businesses will have to overcome will be adapting open office spaces to the new normal of strict personal hygiene and social distancing.

While the merits and disadvantages of open plan offices and flexible workspaces have long been debated, the risk they posed of allowing dangerous, highly contagious viruses to spread has never really been previously considered, so aspects of modern workplaces will have to change if employees are to safely return to their desks. Experts suggest this could involve a combination of short-term solutions – involving both home and office working - to boost employee confidence before looking at long-term solutions.

Working from home

There will undoubtedly be fewer people in the office as businesses may have little choice but to limit the numbers of workers on-site. Because of this, many of us will remain working from home even after government orders to do so are lifted. A staggered workforce could also become the new norm, with smaller groups coming in on alternate days and shifts that avoid the number of people in the office and also the rush hour on the roads.

All the working from home now proves that it is possible to keep business going and not be physically present in the office. Some people have discovered the pleasures of home working, and who doesn’t miss the daily commute – so it’s understandable that some may prefer to continue working from home. But on the other hand most of us have now experienced the inefficiencies of home working and miss the connectivity and productivity an office environment provides.

Although there are many advantages for employees to be able to work from home it also presents a challenge for both employees and managers. The daily work environment and the daily social interaction is what a lot of people have been missing in recent weeks and that collaboration is what a lot of businesses have been lacking. Part of the enjoyment of work is coming together to create ideas and solve problems, and you just can't replicate that working from home.

The new office environment

While health and safety were the top motivators for sending employees home to work at the start of the lockdown, health and safety concerns will also impact the return to the office. Employees will be emboldened to push back on returning to the workplace until they feel it is safe to do so and seek proof that they are returning to a safe and risk-free workplace to allay fears.

This return is likely to be met by changes in work patterns. Additional cleaning protocols will be in place, with a continued emphasis on hand washing and limited group meetings. We are also likely to see the walls of our offices covered in visual instructions, wider corridors and doorways, more partitions between departments, and markings on the floor and in corridors to remind people to keep their distance, potentially creating a one-way flow to minimise transmission, as adopted by many hospitals during the current outbreak.

Modern workplace design has been about breaking down barriers between teams and encouraging collaboration. Open plan offices can still actually work, but under certain conditions. And while there is still so much uncertainty regarding Covid-19, businesses aren’t expected to undertake major refits anytime soon as this activity may be rendered ineffective if things change or a vaccine is found before the end of the year. Instead companies are looking at protective solutions and creating barriers between workers so people can return to the office.

Protective screen solutions

Previously, workstations were about privacy and acoustics. Now they represent a physical separation between colleagues, and additional physical barriers will make people feel more comfortable when returning to work. The modern office is going to have to adapt to ensure employees can maintain social distancing guidelines and limit the risk of airborne germs between colleagues.

Dams have designed a dedicated range of protective screen solutions, available fully upholstered, in white mfc or clear acrylic to ensure people can be safe at work when they return to the office. Whether dividing desk space or an entire office area, the new protective screen solutions provide an element of privacy for employees, allowing them to define their own space to physically establish social distance and give psychological comfort.

If colleagues are too close and workplaces are too densely populated, then people will naturally feel uncomfortable in the space, so high screens can be added to existing furniture to provide a protective barrier, whether on single desks, bench desk clusters, meeting areas or social spaces. Floor standing desk dividers are also available to sit on the floor and rest on desktops, table tops and workstations to negate the need to reconfigure existing spaces by applying appropriate distance between people.

Dams also have a selection of anti-bacterial and bleach cleanable fabrics and vinyls available to make upholstered screens as safe and as easy to clean as possible when it comes to infection control. Having protective screens with anti-microbial treatments or bleach cleanable products are just as important to protect employees in the fight against microbes.

Adapting workplaces

Coronavirus has changed the way we have worked and will undoubtedly have long-term consequences for the way we work and manage in the future. Every day use of hand sanitiser, cleaning equipment and wearing masks will emerge. Handshaking or friendly kisses on the cheek may soon be things of the past. There will definitely not be any snacks at the next office meeting. But the real question is whether there will be any people at all in the next office meeting.

There’s no doubt that living through a pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on the way we work and how our workplaces function. It seems likely that our desire to trek into the office will be tested after a prolonged period of acclimatisation towards remote working from both workers and managers alike. Homeworking will continue, but office life - in some form - will, too. The challenge lies in how to adapt workplaces.