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Making the most of your office floor plan during COVID-19

In a mere century, our approach to the office layout (and our perception of the office) has undergone numerous shifts and adjustments. It’s no wonder then that, after 100 years of office design and practices constantly in motion, the 2020 global pandemic once again spurred a necessary evolution in the way (and the places) we work.

As companies rethink how their workplaces support how their people work in the wake of COVID-19, it's important to start at the foundation: their office floor plan. We'll walk through how office design has changed over time and how to get the most out of your floor plan today.

A brief history of the office floor plan

Before diving into the modern-day floor plan, let's walk through the evolution of office spaces. While some concepts go in and out of style, strategies from any era can be used to create a floor plan that reflects how your people like to get their work done. In response to COVID-19 it's clear workplace strategy must anchor on customization, flexibility, and employee choice. Picking and choosing aspects from each of these may add up to the equation that makes the most sense for you people.

The industrial floor plan: The original open-plan design

The earliest incarnation of the “floor plan” as we know it today originated in the earlier, industrial-era factory floor. Featuring banks of desks arranged in a linear fashion (a holdover from the manufacturing floor) and flanked by offices for management, persisted well into the 1950s. Moving into the 1950s and 1960s, the utilitarian design softened into a more democratically-minded, collaborative design approach, though ideas of hierarchy would persist into the 1970s and 1980s. 

Semi-private floor plans: The cubicle era

As management structures deepened in the early 1980s, the need for more semi-private space gave birth to the hallmark “cubicle farms” of the era, blending the positives of the open concept with added privacy—without sacrificing the suggestion of hierarchy provided by private offices. Cubeland may be the butt of jokes in office pop culture, but its proliferation was a fixture of office design for decades to come.

closed-plan office floor plan
Closed-plan office filled with cubicles.

Open floor plan: Everything old is new again

The 1990s ushered in the era of the open floor plan, driven by a desire to make better use of square footage and increase the collaboration between teams. While the open office plan has drawbacks (distraction, environmental shortcomings, and health concerns among them) their merits have made them a popular choice for many offices into the 2000s.

Open-plan office with uniform workstations.
Open-plan office with uniform workstations.

The open floor plan also inspired workplace teams to change how we perceive the office today — not as a necessary part of work, but as an open space that could promote good office culture and serve some social function for its people. After the tech boom of the late 1900s and early 2000s, game rooms, nap zones, social gathering spots, wellness rooms, and other socially-focused use cases became desirable within the office. These spaces were also used as a recruiting tool for large companies looking to entice top talent away from competitors.

Activity-based and hybrid work

The natural evolution of the open office, activity-based work (ABW) began to embrace the varying ways staff work and interact with their office environment. This shift was further informed by advancing technology and the rise of software and SaaS platforms that enabled communication and decentralized work. ABW also addressed many of the shortcomings of the true open-office environment, creating meeting room space for small-team work, living room-style social areas for team building, focus settings for one on one-or-solo work, and hot-desking equipment and solutions for flexible density considerations. This shift, while still imperfect, better addresses the health and wellness workplace planners have increasingly championed in recent years (and very recently due to coronavirus).

Comparing closed and open floor plans

While open and activity-based floor plans are all the rage, the closed floor plan remains popular in a few industries. Taking a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each, are there any features that could be useful in areas of your office?

Pros of the closed floor plan (cons of the open)

Privacy - The closed office may not have the appeal of open office designs in terms of sociability, but for some, that’s more a feature than a bug. Closed offices, with cubicle and private office space, give everyone focus space away from the noise and distractions that come with an open design. 

Productivity - When your staff is able to tune out the distractions of the office at large, they are better able to focus on the task at hand. Proponents of the closed office approach report that productivity increases in these types of environments. At the same time, this productive focus is achieved in quiet corners, library environments, and other focus areas in flexible, open floor plans too.

Healthier people - One of the shortcomings of the open office format is that when someone in the office comes down with something, more co-workers are likely to be exposed. Whether the common cold or the novel coronavirus, closed offices can offer an element of protection from the swift spread of disease. One caveat: In order for this to be true, the ventilation and filtration systems in your office have to be doing their part to keep everyone breathing fresh air.

Pros of the open floor plan (cons of the closed)

Cost - Part of the appeal of an open office floor plan design is in its economic use of space. Engineering a closed office setting requires a lot of built infrastructure (walls, doors, etc.), and the costs for this installation can add up quickly. It also requires careful attention and great HVAC systems to keep everyone comfortable (and keep the office thermal wars to a minimum).

Lack of flexibility - If working with a closed office floor plan, you’ll have less ability to quickly rearrange things as your company grows and changes. Although the solution, in this case, may include flexible work or mobility programs that transcend the four walls of the office, it bears some consideration if you’re planning a build-out.

Less collaborative space - Open and activity-based work designs offer an advantage in terms of collaborative spaces such as break out zones, conference rooms, and informal gathering spots. While the needs of your office may not require this type of infrastructure, there are limitations to this ad-hoc collaboration in closed floor plans. 

Today: Making the most of your office floor plan during COVID-19

While the movement toward flexible work has been building over the last decade, the COVID-19 pandemic created a sudden shift in how and where we work. One of the many debates arising out of the pandemic: should we return to the office? If we do, what will it look like? 

In the near-term, offices that house essential personnel have had to make swift, radical changes in the layout and utilization of their workspaces. Social distancing requirements have forced most businesses to address their density, make decisions on how many people can work simultaneously, and adopt flexible work policies on the fly.

A safely-distanced and sanitation-equipped floor plan is essential during COVID.

As we move through the pandemic, the way we work and engage in the physical office will continue to evolve, from reimagining floor plans to our overall level of attendance in the office. Though we may not yet know the extent to which the pandemic permanently changes our work life, architects, designers, and workplace experience managers are already hard at work conceptualizing the possibilities.

A few changes seem likely:

  • Companies will offer more flexibility in their technology and their policies, both as a matter of public health and employee preference.
  • For new office spaces, interior design considerations will place an emphasis on creating distanced experiences, safe traffic patterns through offices, sufficient ventilation, and enhanced technology in order to ensure safety for employees and visitors. 
  • Hybrid work will continue to grow in popularity. Floor plans that enable people to connect with coworkers in a remote setting will flourish.
  • Enhancements in the use and technology of common spaces will be necessary to reduce density in these areas and streamline the meeting process. 

Each office will have to determine how those policies and practices will change. Fortunately, with the right planning and technology, maintaining a safe and healthy work environment can go smoothly.

Creating the right floor plan for your office

Step 1: Take stock of your space and physical assets

There was a time when all that was required of a space planning effort was to map out the desks and offices, put them into a schematic, and post copies in a few remote corners of the building. Now, with the need for a real-time, living view of who's in the office, where they're sitting, who they're working with, what rooms are being used, and so on, static methods of floor plan management simply won't cut it anymore.

The first step to reimagining your office floor plan to take stock of your space, your physical assets, and how they're used. Ask yourself:

  1. How many raw square feet of space you have?
  2. What types of space make up your office (common areas, offices, storage, open desking space)?
  3. How many people visit your office daily?
  4. What type of office furniture do you currently have, and can it be used to create the right type of space?
  5. What kind of seating strategies does your company use (flexible, assigned, hot-desking, etc)? 
  6. What shared resources are available and what teams need to access them (phone booths near sales, quiet nooks near engineering)?
  7. How different roles use the office space, including how many absolutely require in-office attendance to do their jobs well?

To make this process a little easier, we built an easy-to-use space calculator to help you get a quick analysis of your space usage.

Once you understand some of the data points for your office and its needs, you can go about the process of optimizing your space for your people and space requirements.

Step 2: Consider how your people get their work done

The right floor layout for your office can make the best use of space while empowering people to get their best work done. Depending on the workstyles and roles within your office, one approach may work more effectively than others. Here are a few ways your floor plan can adapt to the way your people get their work done.

before and after gif of a hybrid meeting
COVID changed how we get work done. A modern floor plan needs to accommodate hybrid work among other changes.

Assigned seating - If you have sufficient square footage to ensure social distancing for all your workings, the traditional desk assignments can offer your people the security of a private spot in the office to get to work. In this scenario, each employee is responsible for the maintenance of their desk area, given access to a well-stocked sanitation station within reach.

Flexible seating (hot desking, desk hoteling, etc) - If a chunk of your people aren't in the office every day, flexible seating strategies are a must. Especially with offices operating at reduced capacity due to COVID-19 guidelines, offering employees the flexibility to book a desk when they choose to come in has become an increasingly popular floor plan strategy. With these types of desking methods, office visitors can book a desk for the day, clean their workspace after use, and take any personal items with them at the end of the day.

Neighborhoods - When teams work together regularly, one way to limit the transmission of illness in your office is to create areas for each of your departments or teams with socially distanced floor plans. These dedicated spaces— sometimes called “neighborhoods”— can be designated based on teams, roles, and/or work activities. Cohorting can limit the number of people any individual team member sees in a day, which is useful for contact tracing in the event of an infection.

Step 3: Find the right tool to manage your floor plan

Now more than ever, keeping track of booking and seating in your office is a high priority. It’s important to have a living view of your space utilization for several reasons:

  • Iteration: Understanding when and how people use your office can help you make decisions about cohorting, scheduling, and floor plan layouts.
  • Office policies: A management tool can help you understand how your meeting rooms, desks, and flex spaces are being used, and identify issues with booking practices (ghosting, squatting, density issues). 
  • Wayfinding: A check-in system can help your team interact more efficiently, instead of physically navigating the office looking for a desk or a co-worker. 
  • Safety insights: Data from your floor plan management tool can help with contact tracing if necessary.
floor plan management tool
An effective floor plan management tool should be easy to use and accommodate different types of seating strategies.

The best tool kills quite a few birds with one stone. When considering floor plan management tools, consider if they include all of the following:

Interactive floor plan - No more sad map tacked up in the lunchroom. With a digital, interactive workplace map, employees and visitors alike can quickly navigate the space and get around with confidence.

Desk management tools - No matter your seating strategy, it should be simple to assign seats or enable your employees to book their own desks. Desk management tools with drag-and-drop functionality and drafts are essential to maintaining and always up-to-date floor plans.

Easy booking resources - Whether you need a desk for the day or a conference room for the hour, a management system can help employees find what they need, check-in for the day, book a room for the correct amount of attendees, and helps the workplace team understand how everyone is using the space on a daily basis. 

Workplace insights - If you’re committed to making efficient office utilization a continuous process, the data gathered from your company’s booking and working habits can help you make the best possible decisions about space use, redesign opportunities, when you need to move offices, and more.

Get your floor plan off the ground

Putting all these pieces together:

(1) inspiration from the evolution of floor plans
(2) stock of your space and physical assets
(3) awareness of how your people get their best work done
(4) the right tool to get the job done

managing a floor plan that makes the best use of your space while creating a great workplace experience for your people is simple. In the wake of COVID-19, companies around the globe are rethinking how to set up workplaces that anchor around their employees' experience. It all starts with the foundation of your space: the floor plan.

Looking to get the most out of your floor plan? Whether it's a safely-distanced seating strategy or maximizing utilization, we have the tools to make that happen. To see them in action, click here.