Updated: Jul 9, 2020
"Cubicles have a superpower that open-plan offices do not, they can help stop germs from spreading and sickening workers. For the moment, and maybe for a long moment, that alone is likely to herald the return of the cubicle." - The Globe & Mail
The COVID-19 pandemic brought a whole new set of challenges across almost every area in our lives. In just a matter of weeks, we learned how to adapt to our new way of life, from not going to school, shopping, seeing friends, and even working. At the time of the writing of this article, countries around the globe are gradually starting to reopen their economies. While many businesses learned that it was possible to keep their operations afloat by introducing remote work, doing so is not feasible for every industry such as 24/7 control room environments and command centers. This is why many businesses are starting to wonder how to make sure their workers are safe when they finally return to their desks. With the rise in popularity in the "silicon valley" startup workplace, using shared office spaces and common areas such as salad bars, games rooms, rooftop patios, and open lounges, many are questioning if this workplace model is still relevant in a post-pandemic reality.
What About 24/7 Work Environments?
With many businesses contemplating introducing radical changes to the workplace to keep their staff safe, cubicles and plexiglass protective partitions are making a strong come back in office spaces. Some firms are even considering remodeling their offices entirely to minimize the risk of a potential second wave of infections in the following months. However, while standard office spaces had the chance to adapt while everyone was away, 24/7 work environments such as control rooms, 911 dispatch centers, and command centers did not have such luxury as they are essential workers. In this article, we will go over why the cubicle workplace format is on route to becoming the new trend and we'll offer a few recommendations to help keep operators safe from spreading the virus in 24/7 work environments.
The History Of The Cubicle
Before getting into why the cubicle is on its way to becoming the new office trend in 2020, let's go back a few years to learn more about its origins. In the 1960s, the U.S. office furniture company Herman Miller created a new workplace concept called the "Action Office". The furniture system allowed companies to quickly create a workplace environment while having as many employees under one single roof to make the most out of their floor space. Over the years, the concept was introduced in office spaces across the world as they were a highly cost-effective option. However, by the 1990s, the cubicle became outdated, seen as uncool and boring it now represented everything wrong with the corporate world. Even the original designer at Herman Miller called what his idea has become, a “monolithic insanity”.
The Rise Of The Open Space Office
Fast-forward a few decades, and the open space format is now the new standard for most Forbes 500 companies. With the rise of Silicon Valley startups growing exponentially and their need to allocate employees in an office rapidly, companies realized that it was even cheaper to put everyone into a big open space and remove the walls altogether. In the beginning, the open space concept had many promises such as encouraging collaboration, sharing ideas, and improving communication. Unfortunately, working openly and collaboratively together did not often result in the great promise what it was expected to offer. For instance, "A 2020 study by iQ Office, a co-working company, found that as of 2020 close to 60 percent of Canadians said that distractions at work caused them to lose up to two hours of productivity every day, with nearly half of those surveyed blaming noisy open-concept offices for the distractions" (GlobeNewswire). Furthermore, a "2018 study by Harvard professors Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban that showed that open plan-offices result in 73 percent fewer face-to-face interactions and a 67-per-cent increase in e-mail interactions. Other studies have shown that open-concept offices lead to more staff turnover and more employee conflicts." (Bernstein S., Turban S) Meaning that in several cases, shared office spaces are doing the opposite of what they were meant to be.
The Cubicle Is Back
Understandably, many organizations are still hesitant to invest at scale to redesign their workplace in what may only be a temporary pandemic situation, on the other hand, it is a great time to take advantage of the situation and rethink the way in which we create our workspaces. Today, "companies are realizing a balance must be struck, with a return to the privacy and personal workspace without sacrificing the creative collaboration made possible through open-office design." (Inc.) In more real terms, this means integrating back the cubicle format without striving to put as many people in the same room. Giving employees their own space so they can focus on their work but still have a feeling of open space in the office with ergonomically designed furniture. At Sustema, we help our customers design their control room work environments to be as ergonomically as possible considering that these types of facilities need to operate 24/7 and help operators to remain alert at all times. We recently introduced the PES 360 which enables operators to set their preferred setting for the workstation including the temperature, lighting, height, and much more.
Designing Control Rooms Post Covid-19
Here are a few recommendations on how to rethink the office workspace in order to better prepare to protect employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mid to Long Term
New layouts in the space to help physical distancing feel more comfortable such as adding new elements to workstations, like glass or higher screens.
New bleach-cleanable fabrics will be introduced.
Travel is likely to be limited for some time which means the workplace needs to provide more and better options for videoconferencing.
Change the design mentality from thinking in terms of density and costs need to shift, adaptability instead of permanence, fluid instead of fixed.
Flexible layouts with breakout areas, more personal space, and ventilation systems that clean the air and kill pathogens.
Moving desks apart and removing chairs
Adding barriers, enhancing cleaning and safety measures, as well as supporting those who are working from home longer.
Installing plexiglass or some other form of sneeze or cough guards to give additional insurance - a pandemic twist on the old cubicle model.
Separating staff, half at the main center, and another half at the backup plant
Leaving at least a seat of the distance between operators working close to each other
Restricting access to the control room (No vendors or visitors)
Providing disinfecting wipes and spray to clean the workstations
Increasing the daily cleaning by the maintenance crew
Wearing masks where social distancing is not possible
Limiting access to the lunchroom
Closing unnecessary rooms (gym, quiet room, etc)
Limite the number of people in elevators and, with the canteen buffet off the menu, encourage staff to bring in their own food.
While the changes may feel surreal at first, over time a new “normal” will emerge in the office workspace. Companies that will try to return to the way things were before COVID-19 will probably struggle to keep their staff feels safe which will inevitably affect productivity and turnover. Furthermore, now that we experimented working from home and learned that it was possible on a large scale, the role of the workplace in a post-COVID-19 world is more important than ever. In conclusion, we need to recognize that using the cubicle office format in terms of putting as many people together has severe drawbacks, the open office is also greatly suffering under its current minimalist design. There needs to be a balance between the two concepts as we reinvent the workplace and integrate more emerging technology to deliver employee safety and wellbeing.
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