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BW Businessworld

Will Office Pods be the New Normal?

Will the employers make policies to work from home, reduce travel and give themselves more freedom of schedule?

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The coronavirus pandemic discussions have shifted from the spread of Covid-19 virus, to how and when to return to ‘normal’ life. Speculations are rife about how long the pandemic will last, compounded by the uncertainty over the arrival, efficacy and availability of a vaccine. We are social creatures and the drive to return to normalcy also stems from the desire to return to social settings of yore, and the comfort of known environs. Conversations are more effective in person, people are more active, collaborative efforts are more rewarding, many jobs cannot be accomplished remotely and lack of ergonomics at home, are all motivating factors to return to the physical office, at least part of the week supplemented by flexible policies around remote working. However, there are many reservations in the minds of employees about the safety of the ‘new office’.

Incorporating social distancing, minimising surface transmission and proper ventilation are the key issues that need to be addressed as interior designers are coming up with novel ideas to meet this changing world. Office desks have shrunk over the years, from 1.8-metre to 1.6-metre, to now 1.4-metre and at times even less; designing germ-free pods and modular barriers that can adapt to existing open office spaces are essential to maintain the six feet distance rule. Installing of airtight office pods instead of the traditional desks; complete with non-porous, easy-to-clean materials, built-in air purifiers, handle-less doors and facial recognition entry - the Qworktine concept is being considered by many offices.

A New York based start-up, Room, which started out with selling soundproof private phone booths for large open offices of Google, Uber, and Salesforce, has designed modular pods which are prefab rooms that go inside the office, divide the open space; and can be moved easily to different locations within the office as per the need. The pods are also equipped with motion sensors for energy efficiency, storage space for cables and accessories and range from private cabins or focus rooms to meeting rooms to seat 4-6 people. The individual pods can be hexagonal and arranged in a hive shape to accommodate different office layouts without taking up extra space. The meeting rooms can be ordered with a whiteboard model or the expensive built-in monitor and camera model, more in sync with the videoconferencing necessary for working remotely. The Rooms are shipped flat and need to be assembled, and plugged in on-site. The hallmark feature remains that the air is replenished every 60 seconds, which is five times quicker and cleaner than a traditional conference room. In addition, the company has also announced a new product, Room Sense, for companies to analyse the space density and its utilization to plan safe return to the office. A Polish company has developed  Vank_Wall_Box, acoustic pods of varying sizes; with glass fronts; walls and floor upholstered in sound-absorbing fabrics; add-ons of ventilation to a sound system, even a wall of air-purifying plants that create an impression of being surrounded by a jungle, or a wall made of organic materials to evoke inseparable bond with nature!

Simpler solutions of using a new paper placemat for the work desk everyday; think road markings in lobbies and standing spots in lifts; contactless pathways whereby employees rarely need to touch any surface in the building with their hands – doors, faucets and even coffee vending machines; tracking employees movement via their phones sensed by beacons and potentially sending alerts when six-feet rules are breached; one-way movement in hallways to prevent air turbulence are being incorporated in most offices. Hot-desking or seating in any unassigned place will be the trend with increased remote working and availability of portable office toolboxes. Note Design Studios has come with lightweight, foldable, tabletop & full length floor partition versions to shield workers from spread of viruses. Office furniture expert Vitra with its Dancing Walls system allows partitioning by wheel-mounted dividers which act as acoustic sound barriers; storage and display surfaces have become very relevant for mobile partitioning and subdividing large offices into micro-communities. Utilising the open spaces for relocating office desks, using alternate working spaces (or maybe combining adjoining tables and make them bigger) are viable options with most employees working from home and lesser number present in the office physically. A robust climate control ventilation system with UV light filters is however, a pre-requisite in offices where open air ventilation is not an option.

Some companies however, are encouraging employees to work from home and innovative home office designs have been rolled out. Japan’s Muji furniture offers its interior designer services to create a partitioned micro-office or a wall-mounted set-up for a comfortable office environment in a small room. Sidegiggle has come up with a Hid-Den concept, created by designer Irene Yu, to fit a mobile tiny room in the corner of the living room and serve as an enclosed mini-office pod, providing freedom from distractions at home. It can take on different forms to suit the owner – Bookcase mode, with three of its walls as bookcases (to provide acoustic insulation) and can flatten out when the pod is not in use; Den mode, where the bookcase walls fold together to form a cube to form a mini-office; may include a 30-square-foot freestanding office pod; Wardrobe mode –with exterior shelves storing home items or even clothing (for insulation). Julien Verspieren has created Work & Co. for stylish, tech-advanced, and fully operational office space in Cape Town, South Africa with its Mobile Office Pod: NOVA, an office-cum-meeting room, developed from a flatbed trailer measuring two-and-a-half meters wide and five meters long, complete with fast Wi-Fi, plug points, a smart Apple TV and printer, running water, bathroom facilities, a mini-fridge and Nespresso machine - all powered by eco-friendly solar panels and can be stationed at five pre-determined locations, is a dream-cum-true for the new age millennials.

Facebook has been experimenting with desk set-ups, where virtual screens float in the air and people can resize them. The emphasis on ‘supercharge remote work’ has resulted in the evolution of a new computing platform switching between real and virtual worlds using augmented and virtual reality, and co-workers to collaborate in virtual meeting rooms. They are working on Codec Avatars - lifelike virtual avatars of employees to help social connections in VR, so that they become as natural and familiar as those in the real world. Sasaki Designs is experimenting with robots that allow workers to attend meetings via a mobile video screen, take a literal seat at the table meetings, and roam around the office to engage in casual exchanges. Holographic phone calls are in development by Verizon, KT Telecom, and Voda.

The consensus has emerged that in the interconnected modern world that global pandemics are a reality which need to be adapted to. A graded and a planned return, rather than a simultaneous, en masse return to work looks more pragmatic. The office will be rethought, but how will the employees be different when they return to workplace? Will the employers make policies to work from home, reduce travel and give themselves more freedom of schedule? Will they recruit the younger, more tech-savvy employees? It will take both employee advocacy and employer support for the norms to change. People have taken this time to reflect on their priorities; health, family, pursuit of hobbies and relaxation. This perspective shift, beyond the confines of a physical office, will be the biggest change to the workplace!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Dr Anurag Yadav

The author is a Consultant Radiologist at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi. She specialises in Cardiac Imaging. She is an inveterate traveller.

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