Right at the beginning of the recent article I posted about experiences of going back into an office recently I noted that there are many people for whom an office is a regular need, not a occasional diversion.

I’m in the hugely privileged position to have space enough to work from home comfortably and productively. When I was in my 20s and living in house shares that most certainly wasn’t the case, but back then we were limited to dial-up connections and working from home was a rarity if not completely impossible.

There are people who just want to be working outside of their own home for all sorts of other reasons too – from just personal preference and more.

But if our organisations are going to be increasingly geographically dispersed in the future with not everyone in everyday, then they will need to rethink the way that space is provided.

BC (Before Covid) open plan offices would often be broken up into a number of different zones:

  • general desk space where noise would travel around,
  • “Quiet zones” for more concentrated work which would often be in areas with noise insulation (sometimes in what I would always find disorientating acoustically dead “pods”,
  • phone booths (essentially meeting spaces for 1 which would be often very claustrophobic),
  • open plan breakout areas (often near kitchen facilities)
  • closed meeting rooms varying in size from 2 people to dozens
  • closed flexible spaces for workshops

There are probably more.

But for the world of work going forward, where do people who need space in the office to work go to have what may be quite long periods of time on Zoom/Teams/Meet calls?

  • General desk space can be too noisy. And if there is more than one person on the same call in proximity to another, weird echo effects start happening.
  • There’s nothing for driving passive/aggressive behaviour quite like taking a conference call in a quiet zone. Try that on a train sometime if you don’t believe me, you sociopath.
  • One person phone booths can be like coffins for any extended periods of time.
  • Open plan breakout areas are really not a place for a video call (even if they used to be the place for meetings when no meeting room was available).
  • Meeting rooms are fine to take a call, but it depends on how many people and how many meeting rooms you have to know if it’s sustainable, particularly on days when there are more people in the office overall.
  • Big workshop spaces really are hard work for online meetings (although if you plan well you can do hybrid).

It feels like we a missing a zone. An area for online working. Which is a bit counter-intuitive.

You need desks and people will need headsets. The desks need a level more acoustic isolation than traditional desks but not so much that you feel like you are at the bottom of the ocean. You need a level of visual isolation too, perhaps, so that the background of the call isn’t a constant stream of people walking past.

It feels maybe a bit like the much-derided cubicles of old, a model of office layout that I think was more prevalent in the US than ever made it here. No one would necessarily want to be in one all day, but you could at least stand up to see across to other human beings. You also don’t want to take up all of your space with them, as social spaces are going to be more important going forward too.

There’s no perfect answer here, but the office BC I’m sure can be hugely improved upon to provide services that match better with the needs of office workers going forward. I’d love to hear what you are doing on this!

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