Are Cubicles Back? Workplaces are Getting a Makeover

It seems so far back in the past now. If anyone recalls, the movies made cubicles look dreary, soulless cubbyholes. Flash news: They’ve never been gone. Even Google’s Mountain View offices have them.

It was easy to pick on cubicles in pop culture. Design wise, they look monotonous, even if they served the purpose of giving someone a sliver of privacy. While they’ve never been gone, they may just come back in in a big way as a precaution for office workers, with slight variations.

The new normal has certainly changed people’s mindset about work and office layouts — if there’s a point to come to the office, or if they have an office to even call a workplace. The pandemic caused staggering surge in unemployment, which at one point reached a startling 14.7% unemployment rate — the worst since the Great Depression.

HR and global mobility managers as well as co-working spaces are working on how to effectively transform workplace layouts once employees return to their offices.

It’s not an easy task. Many variables come into play when redesigning a workplace.

Redesigning the workplace

For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines aid decision makers on how to formulate a strategy in creating an office layout to prevent the transmission of the deadly virus.

Prior to that, CDC recommends conducting a building evaluation to determine whether it’s suitable to resume for business operations or not.

These include checking on health hazards due to lengthened periods of building shutdowns like molds, pests, and contamination of water systems. The idea is to proceed with redesigning the workplace once companies can establish office safety.

Here are some factors to consider for workplace redesigners based on CDC’s recommendations:

  • Common areas where transmission is most probable like cafeteria, meeting rooms, break rooms, locker rooms and waiting areas
  • Positions and distances of furniture, seats and workstations 
  • Natural ventilation to increase outdoor dilution to indoor air
  • Installation of physical barriers when social distancing isn’t an option
  • Signs, tape marks, and visual cues to maintain social distancing

An article by Hilldrup demonstrates its common sentiments on office setups today, but it also looks at business leaders’ concerns if workers are actually working, even if they don’t physically observe them. 

Whether companies implement a completely remote workforce or an office/remote hybrid workforce, business owners are starting to anticipate their employees returning to the physical office setup. With high costs of commercial real estate coupled with a great deal of issues with utilities, this concern is fairly reasonable. 

Workplace design ideas

Many companies have made fair points on what to consider in redesigning the workplace. These are a couple of workplace designs to look out for:

  • The return of the cubicles

One option companies can consider is going back to the cubicle workplace design. Although considered a dying breed in office layouts, the cubicle may just come back to prevent employees from having unnecessary close contact  with their colleagues. 

But the conventional wooden dividers won’t suffice. In recent years, a younger generation of professionals prefer a more inclusive and collaborative working environment. So how exactly will cubicles look like?

Instead of the high plastic, cardboard or wood-paneled barriers, designers can opt to use plexiglass. It is a highly advised material to satisfy the needs of the new workforce. This allows coworkers to collectively function and even communicate closely while decreasing the risk of transmission.

  • Space-utilized office

Space utilization may prove to be effective given the unprecedented challenges of the times. Mercer emphasized the importance of taking into account the proximity and density requirements in designing a suitable workplace layout for employees.  

Positions of office furniture and seatings will change to comply with the guidelines for safe physical distancing.  Business owners need to maintain at least a 6-foot distance in common areas such as assigned seatings, unassigned seatings, conference rooms, break rooms, and elevators 

Fortunately, Gensler, a workplace design firm, was able to develop an algorithm-based software to achieve optimal utilization of a company’s existing spaces. Investing in this tool will help decision makers strategize on office layout plans without compromising productivity and safety guidelines].

  • Outdoor spaces

Business owners who luckily possess outdoor spaces, can make good use of them as many sources stress the significance of improved ventilation in a Covid-19 world.  

Provided that these spaces don’t pose any occupational hazards such as exposure to outdoor contaminants to workers, companies are more than welcome to take advantage of any underutilized space. 

Forbes states that WeWork had more than 150 of its locations establish outdoor spaces catering to different employee needs like group meetings and meal times. Ebbie Wisecarver, WeWork’s head of global design says, “In a time when fresh air is more valuable than ever, we’re happy to offer our members access to spaces that provide the chance to work productively from both indoors and outdoors.”

Office essentials

Other than the design of the office layout, it’s paramount to include features in business offices to avoid any unnecessary contact and contamination within company premises.

Here’s a couple of features offices should have.

  • Signages

Visible signs are especially important in the office space. For example, observable floor marks should indicate the direction of the flow in the workplace to avoid any close contacts. Another application of signages, are floor marks maintaining the ideal distances, most especially in common areas like the pantry and waiting areas. 

  • Automatic hand sanitizer dispensers

Automatic hand sanitizer dispensers help maintain good hand hygiene. It’s strategic to position them on entry and exit points in the office, as well as common locations where cross contamination is likely to occur such as workstations, pantry, and restrooms.

  • Disinfecting cabinets

Companies can implement more stringent cleaning procedures by designating cleaning cabinets in locations where employees are present the most. They would have to add more potent cleaning supplies to thoroughly disinfect areas of possible contamination.

  • Upgraded heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems

Companies that are still using old heating, ventilation and air-condition (HVAC) systems are encouraged to have them upgraded. New HVAC system controls allow the exchange of fresher air from outside to reduce indoor air recirculation. This brings employees some peace of mind while doing office work.

Although UVC lamps can cause harm to the eyes and skin depending on the wavelength and intensity, it has shown to create a much safer working environment by having the potential in killing the novel coronavirus. The safest time to use these lamps is when rooms are vacant. Thankfully, a recent study from Hiroshima University discovered a safer UV light that kills the virus even with humans around.

Workarounds amid Covid-19

While waiting for pharmaceutical companies  to develop a vaccine, employers have to reevaluate their current strategies on how best to thrive and survive in the new normal. The pandemic has forced the business world to formulate contingency plans in anticipation of similar circumstances in the future.

Experts foresee that even with the release of a successful vaccine,  it would take years to reach a global immunization to the virus. This means companies might still implement decreased density of occupancy in offices. Having a workplace layout makeover is key to adapt in these trying times. (Dennis Clemente)