6 reasons why returning to the workplace doesn’t mean discarding desks

Keeping workers safe after returning to the workplace isn't about throwing desks into landfills. Returning is less about discarding and more about tapping technology to reimagine dynamic spaces.

In an illustration, an office worker throws a desk out a window into an awaiting dumptruck.

Nicolas Mangon

July 31, 2020

min read
  • Instead of discarding desks, companies are leveraging technology to reimagine dynamic workspaces post-pandemic.

  • Utilizing existing technology and generative design can optimize office spaces for social distancing and safety protocols.

  • Redesign efforts must consider both short-term needs and long-term adaptability for potential future crises, including permanent work-from-home options and rethinking shared spaces.

Illustration Autodesk Vice President of AEC Strategy & Marketing Nicolas Mangon
The author, Autodesk Vice President of AEC Strategy & Marketing Nicolas Mangon. Illustration by Micke Tong.

As companies strategize returning to the workplace, I’ve heard leaders across many industries express the idea that returning means removing half of the desks. That sounds straightforward: Fewer desks means more space, and people can easily distance from each other. But this process will result in millions of discarded desks. How do you dispose of these desks and the accompanying tons of office furniture?

You don’t. That’s a bad strategy, one that doesn’t take into account the future and addresses only a short-term problem. So instead of contemplating filling landfills with desks, focus on other strategies—from managing the flow of people into and out of a building to determining how many people actually are necessary in an office space.

Here, I outline what it will mean to begin returning to the workplace post-coronavirus and how you as a business leader can help people learn to behave differently so the return is healthier and better for every part of your company.

1. Businesses can depend on existing technologies for flexibility

Recognize how much change you’ve already made using the technology at hand. Virtually overnight, companies shifted from an office-centric model to a work-from-home one. Video conference calls replaced in-office meetings. Virtual tours replaced site visits. Cloud-based technology made remote working possible for entire workforces. In short, the spirit of “resiliency” allowed companies and employees to take existing technology and make it work so businesses could be run from anywhere at any time. As you learn to adjust to what work will look like in the near and not-so-near future, consider what you already have in place and how it can be used more effectively for your needs as you begin returning to the workplace. You don’t always have to start over.

2. Generative design can help reimagine spaces

Eliminating desks is a clunky solution to a complicated problem that will be solved by technology, not dollies. There are tens of millions of commercial buildings in the world, not to mention other infrastructure. There’s no way, using traditional methods, to redesign this much workspace unless architects change the paradigm.

That’s where generative design comes into play. Software can automate the best options to reimagine and optimize space and meet the compliance criteria for COVID-19 safety. That means providing for social distancing from desk to desk, as well as in the horizontal and vertical movement of people and air in the space. You also need to build in the means to pivot quickly from a “new-normal” environment back to a safety-compliant environment as needed in offices, airports, universities, and restaurants. The ability to act quickly and revert to a different arrangement of desks, rooms, and circulation to limit disease transmission makes your business more resilient for the future.

3. Redesigns for today must also meet needs for the future

Technology and redesign efforts need to focus on two modes: one for the next six months and one that’s adaptable for another COVID-19 spike or other virus that could be two, five, or 10 years down the road. After COVID-19 passes, companies must plan for the possibility that they will need to return to a mode where everything is organized for distancing. That requires evaluating how a workspace naturally functions and then finding ways to change behaviors and modify spaces for better outcomes.

For example, some software programs will simulate crowds and movement of people for the purposes of visualizing kids going to recess or employees coming into the building. Do they need to take the stairways or elevator? Which groups move when? You may have to organize shifts and distribute arrival times for different groups of people to avoid close contact and crowded corridors.

This will create unique challenges for architects, as the same space will need to serve two purposes—one being a crisis mode, like today, and the second a normal mode. Overcoming these challenges will ensure that leaders are ready for what may come so they can immediately transition to a work mode that’s safe and reliable for every layer of a company.

“Sidewalks are not designed for social distancing. For people to safely pass each other, sidewalks must be wider. Or a new circulation scheme is necessary to keep everyone flowing in one direction or the other.”

—Nicolas Mangon, Autodesk VP

4. Permanent work-from-home options are real considerations

To respect social distancing and circulation, businesses probably need only 25% of people back in offices for the foreseeable future. I’m seeing a trend of leaders saying they don’t think all of their employees should go back to the office. This is occurring even in traditional industries that historically have been averse to allowing employees to work remotely. One example is law firms. I’ve heard from law firms that, in the future, they see workplaces as mainly meeting rooms and open spaces for client-facing gatherings. And they won’t need desks for their employees who do their work remotely (while also getting the benefit of avoiding public transport and saving time commuting). Offices will become conference rooms or customer-briefing centers.

That could signal a big shift for many companies. In the United States, it’s fairly normal to have people work from home at least occasionally. Schedules of three days in the office and two days at home are pretty typical. But if you go to other countries, such as Japan, everybody goes to the office every day. In these countries and environments, working from home will be very hard to implement. This will take active consideration from leaders and company managers to make the best solution work for everyone.

5. Shared spaces are ripe for rethinking

In this illustration, a man enters a disinfecting machine on his way into an office.
Safe building spaces include those leading into the building. Illustration by Micke Tong.

Obviously, it’s the end of the open office and cubicles—at least for now. But those aren’t the only shared spaces. Sidewalks are not designed for social distancing. For people to safely pass each other, sidewalks must be wider. Or a new circulation scheme is necessary to keep everyone flowing in one direction or the other. Public-transportation systems and hubs consistently rank as points of anxiety for people, as they fear the lack of distancing planning puts them at risk of contracting the virus. When leaders are thinking of the inside of a building, they must also consider the spaces that lead to it and make them equally as safe for employees as they start returning to the workplace.

6. Future developments will make spaces even safer

Just as we at Autodesk are redesigning our own workplace for health and safety, brands around the globe are imagining and creating the technologies that will make future workspaces even safer than we can foresee. It’s too early to disclose examples, but we’re aware of companies that are working on inventions that will sanitize people and office components in ways you’ve never imagined. Other companies are considering the use of drones or robots to clean.

Your existing office space and its surroundings can flex in much the same way as your workforce did when industries moved almost overnight from in-person to virtual work—through a combination of technology and imagination. That’s the essence of resilience, and it will poise companies to be able to address whatever comes next, for COVID-19 and beyond.

Nicolas Mangon

About Nicolas Mangon

Nicolas Mangon is vice president of AEC industry strategy for Autodesk and a leader of the global advancement of building information modeling (BIM) across the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industries. Mangon's mission is to lead the industry transformation to BIM and the cloud. Educated at the world-renowned Ecole Spéciale des Travaux Public’s Institution for Civil and Structural Engineering, Mangon brings deep industry expertise to the continued development of innovative solutions that address the AEC industry.

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