Architect Hugh Wallace on what changes you can expect when you return to your office

Architect Hugh Wallace on what changes you can expect when you return to your office
Hugh Wallace at his studio in Dublin 8. The architect has some sensible advice for businesses on creating a safe post-Covid environment. Picture: Moya Nolan

So you arrive into work in the morning, reach for your office fob, realise it’s tucked in the pocket of a different pair of trousers, press the buzzer, request that they “buzz” you in, enter first a gate then a door by pulling a handle, head into the lift, press the floor button, exit the lift, push your way through another set of doors, and head straight for the kitchen and the coffee machine where you press the Americano button, an action instantly repeated by another colleague who is well within sneezing range.

This was a typical pre-Covid scenario in my own workplace, but no more. Pandemic is forcing a rapid transition to an utterly transformed work environment where voice-activated doors, copious sanitizing stations, anti-microbial furniture fabrics and germicidal lights will be the norm.

Tragically, it could also spell an end to workplace canteens, coffee machines, water dispensers and even the occasional sharing of takeaway pizza on evenings when employees are rewarded for working late in an effort to meet tight deadlines.

“You won’t even be able to have an open packet of biscuits or share them around,” says celebrity architect Hugh Wallace, director of Douglas Wallace Consultants.

Mr Wallace has some sensible advice for businesses on creating a safe post-Covid environment, starting with a risk assessment of their premises to determine how likely it is to contribute to the spread of Covid-19.

Architect Hugh Wallace on what changes you can expect when you return to your office
“You won’t even be able to have an open packet of biscuits or share them around." Picture: Moya Nolan
This could involve two people walking through the building with one person going through the pre-Covid motions to gain entry, and a second person noting all the touch points.

Some office actions are so ingrained, people may not even realise the danger they could now pose.

“You know the way if any of us goes up to the photocopier and there could be a tonne of photocopying because people haven’t collected it, and so you pick it up and distribute it — well you can’t do that anymore. You need to be aware of sanitising things. Photocopiers, printers, handrails on stairs.

“You will have to have people who literally do nothing else except sanitise the staircase and handrails. And every entry and exit point will have to have sanitisers,” Mr Wallace says.

Water dispensers may have to be replaced by bottled water. Putting cups or glasses in a dishwasher won’t kill the virus unless it’s put through a cycle that’s hot enough

Then there’s the desk problem. Mr Wallace says the ramifications for an open plan environment are “quite onerous”.

“In my opinion an office will be divided into two teams and ne’er the two teams shall meet.

“You might have to split the floor with one team going into one half and the other team into the other, or ideally with one team working from home, so that if there is an outbreak, only that particular team is considered as contacts.”

There would need to be daily contact sheets, with staff members who present at the office signed in, as well as “sneeze screens” between desks, with no one working across the desk from anyone else.

“To keep 2m between people, the numbers in the office will be greatly reduced,” Mr Wallace says.

Desk sharing will be avoided as much as possible, with a rigid cleaning protocol directly after use. Staggering the workforce is a likely requirement.

“I believe that 25% of our employees will now either work from home or partially work from home - when I say partially, they might only come into the office two or three days a week.I think there was an inevitability about working from home but what Covid has done is brought it into immediate focus,” Mr Wallace says.

A recent survey by BNP Paribas Real Estate Ireland found 71% of Irish office workers are concerned about the health implications of shared working environments, even though 59% believe their former office is a healthy place to work.

Kenneth Rouse, Managing Director and Head of Capital Markets believes office changes may include everything “from modular offices and partitions to hi-tech health & safety”.

“Measures like voice activated doors and elevators, anti-microbial fabrics and wall coverings and germicidal lights. Healthcare design standards for cleaning and ventilation systems will be common.” Mr Rouse says developers are looking at how future office design, fit-out and occupation will reflect new safety protocols, as well as new no-touch technology that will facilitate safer shared spaces.

Savills Ireland says the long-term design and specification of office buildings are being reviewed by landlords and their tenants, due to Covid-19, sanitation, lift capacity, social distancing and air conditioning are just some of the factors being considered. (Mr Wallace says air conditioning systems are safe due to their filtration process. Hand dryers are also safe, he says, and a better option to stuffing bins with tissues.) Savills Ireland director of offices Andrew Cunningham says there is likely to be an increased focus on easy-clean fit-outs.

He believes lift capacity may have to be reduced to preserve social distancing and minimise the mixing of staff in multi-lets. Equally implementing social distancing may require office occupiers to review their operational density ratios.

As Mr Wallace says “all very onerous” but inevitable in the workplace as we edge towards this new Post-Covid world.

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