Your turn: Has COVID-19 spelled the death knell for open-plan offices?

COVID-19 has designers worrying if open-plan offices are safe for workers.

March 30, 2020 |
Rob Cassidy

The novel coronavirus may have claimed yet another victim—the open-plan office. "Open plan," which is used in about 70% of U.S. office workplaces, has been under scrutiny for a number of reasons: employee privacy, noise and visual distractions, work interruption, negative impact on workflow, just as it has its advocates for similar reasons: greater employee collaboration, hipper work environment, etc.

But COVID-19 has put a whole new spin on the open plan. When we go baack to work, will we be looking over our shoulders when our officemate in the next cubicle sneezes?

Blair Kamin, architecture columnist for the Chicago Tribune, addressed these and other issues in a March 29, 2020 column, "Will open-plan offices help the spread of coronavirus?"

I'm going to condense some of points that Kamin's article elicited, then ask you: Is the open plan dead? Are you using any of the techniques and ideas Kamin has suggested? What are you doing about designing offices for wellness? Here we go:

  1. Hoteling (or hotel seating): Should it be eliminated? I've seen rows of "carrels" where the seating was barely wider than what you get in economy on most airlines. Is such proximity conducive to the health and well-being of workers?
  2. Conference rooms: Get rid of them? Videoconference everything, even if all the participants are in the office.
  3. Common or collaboration spaces: They're meant to inspire great thinking, but are they really glorified Petri dishes for the proliferation of all sorts of bugs? What about the office café or lunchroom, where there can be a lot of mess. Should we make employees spread out? Put a limit on the number of workers in the room at any one time?
  4. Plush furniture: It may look great in the lobby or reception area, but is it a breeding ground for COVID-19, or the next virus?
  5. O&M considerations: Will we need to to have stricter workplace policies about disinfecting desks, keypads, countertops, seats?

Let me know what you plan to do about workplace design in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Send any photos, drawings, discussion points, or  ideas to my self-isolation cell in Chicago: rcassidy@sgcmail.com. We'll post the most practical, interesting, and compelling ones online at www.BDCnetwork.com.

Rob Cassidy

Robert Cassidy is Executive Editor of Building Design+Construction and the Editor of Multifamily Design+Construction. A city planner, he is the author of several books, including “Livable Cities,” and was a co-founder of the Friends of the Chicago River.

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