Imagining the post-pandemic workspace

The nature of work has changed drastically over the last few months. From switching to remote working to optimising essential services, all industries need to reinvent and reconsider not only how they work, but also where they work.

The traditional workplace model has been under review for years, with various alternative workplace models and alternative workspaces being considered and experimented with. In 1994, American telecom giant AT&T made headlines when 32,000 AT&T employees stayed home and telecommuted as part of an experiment on alternative workspaces, moving the work to the worker instead of the worker to work.

In the years since, the concept of the alternate workspace with non-traditional work practices, settings, and locations has become more and more relevant, and has never been more relevant than now in the wake of the pandemic. People’s mindsets regarding health and safety are also changing, to prioritise health over productivity.

Biggest changes to the workplace we can expect

Based on recent events, overcrowded offices are well set to become a thing of the past. Not only can crowded work environments be stressful, but can also contribute to spreading illness. In the wake of the pandemic, and beyond, it is likely that public health will become a bigger concern.

Due to the forced shift to almost entirely working remotely, it is also very possible that a larger portion of the workforce will continue to work from home, either at their own request or that of their employers.

A survey conducted in April 2020 by leading research company Gartner showed that 74% of chief financial officers on a global level expect that at least 5% of employees who started working from home during the pandemic will continue to work from home permanently. While these statistics will not apply to Sri Lankan workforces in the same way, there is evidence to suggest that the Sri Lankan workforce will also adapt with more people working from home than ever before.

Does the workplace need redesigning? 

Lady Neon Founder and Principal Designer Marianne Gooneratne

With the staggered lifting of curfew and regular movement resuming, workplaces have put temporary measures in place, following the safety guidelines issued by the health authorities. As time goes on and the post-Covid-19 “new normal” establishes, workplaces will need to make conscious decisions to adapt to the needs of their employees and customers when it comes to the use of their physical workspace.

In light of this, The Sunday Morning Brunch reached out to Marianne Gooneratne, the Founder and Principal Designer of Lady Neon, an interior design practice that deals with commercial retail, hospitality, and commercial spaces. Currently reading for her MA in Design at Northumbria University in Newcastle, Gooneratne shared that although the concept of alternate workspaces and practices is not new, and much research has been done on how far companies could go in transforming their workspaces, it is now in the hands of companies – particularly small to medium companies – to see how alternate workspaces can work for them, not just from a workforce and efficiency perspective, but also from a sensory and aesthetic perspective.

Even when transforming spaces temporarily to accommodate interim health and safety guidelines, special care should be taken to make these changes look attractive and easy to do, as opposed to being clinical and imposing. This sensitivity, particularly from a design and aesthetic point of view, can go a long way towards boosting both employee morale as well as a business’ reputation.

What to expect in the design of the future workspace

Given the likely increase in employees choosing to work from home in the long term or permanently, there will be spaces in offices that will be underutilised. The creation of flexible or rotating workspaces within a workplace will be a powerful way of adjusting a workplace to the needs of employees who work away from the office most of the time and only come in for short periods of time when and as required.

Gooneratne explained that while reducing the size of in-house workforces could result in smaller overall office spaces being required – and in turn mean lesser overhead costs in terms of rent and utilities – it is also important to consider the extra space that will be required for things like technology and storage that will be needed when accommodating a larger workforce that works out of the office.

This being said, there is a strong opportunity for designers to become creative with how functions like storage and technology infrastructure play a part in the space, building these things into the overall space organically yet effectively.

From a social perspective, the workplace is also likely to change; there is a chance that it will take a while for social interaction to take place on the same level as it did, taking into account the long periods of social distancing and the reasoning behind needing to distance socially.

UK magazine Mix Interiors, in an article published in May consulting a variety of designers and creatives, theorised that workplaces are likely to become more intentional and destination places of collaboration and connection where employees come together while otherwise working independently.

Co-working spaces in the new normal

Co-working spaces, where multiple offices or companies share the same space, are also gaining popularity in Sri Lanka. These spaces are designed to foster a sense of community and productivity while still maintaining privacy.

With more people no longer working from their offices, there may be an increased demand for co-working spaces for when employees want to get out of their homes but not necessarily go into their company’s brick and mortar, be it for logistical or productivity reasons.

Co-working spaces have the chance to build a niche for themselves in this but would need to adapt in terms of design to minimise concerns of health and safety.

Bringing it all together

What really are the key things to consider when designing workspaces post Covid-19? While what the future will bring is by no means uncertain, a few potential key trends to emerge in the coming months in the space of workplace design is the likely need for spaces that allow employees to circulate comfortably and healthily.

The use of materials in new workspaces will also need careful consideration, with non-porous materials that are easy to keep clean taking precedence over materials that are more to difficult to maintain for health and safety in the longer term.

Sustainable thinking and practice will also come into play more when considering workspaces, with intelligent designers creating pieces that last and that impact stakeholders positively in the long term as well the short term.

Colour palettes will vary greatly based on the outlook and aesthetic of specific companies, but on the whole, it is likely that restrained, neutral calming palettes will rise to the fore of workplace environments, with an emphasis on nature and natural motifs in the “new normal”.


PHOTO Lady Neon