Revised Office Seating Design During COVID-19
The COVID-19 crisis, complete with temporary business shutdowns, has helped many businesses to realize how much can be accomplished with a completely remote workforce. However, you may want to bring employees back into the office environment for a number of reasons, from oversight capabilities, to productivity, to the camaraderie formed through in-person interactions, to employee mental health, just for example
Of course, it can’t be business as usual – you’ll have to conduct operations in an entirely new way if you want to ensure the health and safety of workers. Perhaps the most important change to your current setup is adding the element of social distancing. How can you revise the seating arrangements in your office spaces to reflect safe social distancing guidelines?
Adding Safe Space
The first thing you’ll need to do is separate employees, and this means dividing their work stations. While shared work spaces, including team seating arrangements, have become a popular tool for collaboration over the last several years, a return to private seating is in order post COVID-19.
Social distancing guidelines mandate a minimum of 6 feet of distance between people, but considering testing showing how far airborne droplets can spread from an uncovered cough, you might want to increase this distance or implement additional measures, like barriers. In terms of planning your layout, you’ll either have to space out employees at current seating or create an entirely new layout with individual desks spaced farther apart.
This process can be made easier with the right layout software. If you’re not keen to spend money on software for this purpose, you can find free tools and even templates online. However, it might not be a bad investment, considering you can gain future use value when you scale staffing up or down.
As you push desks apart to create a safe layout, you’ll find that you naturally have to reduce capacity in your work spaces. This could mean allowing some employees to continue working remotely indefinitely. Or you could create a shift schedule, whereby half of workers come to the office in the morning and the other half arrive in the afternoon, or with A/B scheduling for groups coming in every other day. This will increase the need for thorough cleaning and sanitization, but chances are you’re planning to increase the frequency of these activities anyway.
In addition to socially distancing your office layout, it’s wise to consider supplemental health and safety features, including the addition of walled cubicles, panel dividers, or other barriers meant to impede the spread of germs in an open-air environment. You want to create the safest possible environment for workers to return to, and physical barriers can certainly help to stop airborne particles from spreading should workers cough or sneeze.
Cubicles Make a Serious Comeback During the Coronavirus Crisis
In recent years, there’s been a marked shift in the way office environments operate, most notably in the seating arrangements. Where rows of cubicles once allowed companies to provide a large staff with relatively private space to work, without the cost of building out individual offices, more recent layouts have included a more open and collaborative workspace, devoid of dividers, or with only minimal division.
While such seating arrangements have allowed for the implementation of team work stations and easier collaboration, an argument could be made that this strategy makes it more difficult for individual employees to focus, and creates an environment where employees may feel like they’re under constant scrutiny. That said, it looks like a new shift is underway, due to COVID-19. What can companies and workers expect?
First and foremost, companies wishing to bring employees back from forced remote operations will have to comply with guidelines for social distancing, which means creating a minimum six feet of distance between each employee. This will definitely eliminate shared workspaces like groups of desks facing each other that have gained popularity over the last few years.
It will also likely limit the number of employees that can be housed in any given space at one time. For businesses that don’t want to spend the money to expand square footage in order to accommodate their work force, this could mean allowing some employees to remain in the remote workforce, or alternately, create an A/B schedule for different groups of employees to come to the office on alternating days, for example.
Even with socially distanced desks, it’s worrisome to have a large group of employees working in an open space. For this reason, cubicle dividers or safety screens of some sort are likely to be implemented.
According to a study conducted by Florida Atlantic University, when a person coughs without covering the mouth, the airborne droplets can travel more than 8 feet, well beyond the 6-foot social distancing recommendations. This distance was reduced to just over 3.5 feet with a bandana and only 2.5 inches with a quilted cotton mask.
For companies that don’t intend to enforce mask-wearing in the office environment, this obviously poses a serious risk of disease spread. One obvious way to minimize risks is to place cubicle walls or other suitable barriers around individual work spaces.
In addition to creating new layouts, businesses will also have to implement new health and safety policies and procedures, such as mandatory masks and increased office cleaning and sanitization. You may have to improve ventilation, add sanitizing stations, and provide employees with individual use items to cut down on high-touch surfaces.
With proper social distancing, isolated work spaces, and proper sanitization and other considerations, you have the best opportunity to create a safe and healthy office environment for employees and clients.
How to promote community with cubicles
The cubicle-centric office offers far more personal and group potential than some contemporary culture watchers will have you believe. Far from the rigid, formalist constructions depicted in movies and television, cubicles can provide the sense of unity and collaboration necessary to make for a healthy business community (in fact, as you’ll soon read, that’s why they were invented).
While the rise of the open office comes from the drive to make professionals more cooperative and productive, that potential exists with cubicles as well. By concentrating on certain design and functional elements, fostering the spirit of community within blocks of cubicles is entirely possible.
Why cubicles became popular
One facet of appeal for cubicle work arrangements is that they relax an office’s power structure. Although executives still have their private offices, cubicles strip a lot of the “top-down,” impersonal feeling of business that’s proliferated practically since the Industrial Revolution. That promotes a better sense of comfort, which in turn contributes to a better work environment and more real productivity.
Nevertheless, cubicles are criticized for their conforming nature and appearance: All of them look the same. That’s certainly true with cubicles that have just come from the factory—but making a cubicle more personal (and personable) can improve one’s surroundings and boost at least a little morale.
Communities thrive when each member feels part of a greater movement but still retains their individuality. Encouraging personalization of each unique workstation can help those positive self-feelings and make the community better as a whole.
The origins of cubicle design may surprise you
The argument that cubicle culture promotes disenfranchisement is at least a little ironic. The cubicle was originally invented to promote positive workplace environments by reinforcing personal privacy. Old business spaces contained little separation between employees at all, and the innovation of the cubicle was designed to improve morale by reinforcing private space.
Sometime between the eras of cubicle innovation and the explosion of technology, that meaning changed. Cubicles began to represent isolation rather than acceptable privacy. The recently popular open-office structure was intended to break down those walls and foster collaboration but also compromised those moments when privacy is necessary. Furthermore, for offices already designed for cubicles, renovating for open offices may not be financially or structurally practical.
Solutions for enhancing your cubicle community
The solution for bringing commonality into the cubicle environment, then, considers advantages of both the cubicle and open-office structures, instituting the best elements of both and adapting them to foster a sense of community. Some ideas in this direction include:
- Arranging “third places.” Interaction and socializing are cornerstones of all communities. Inspiring one-on-one or group contact through office design can be as simple as making comfortable meeting spaces, making smaller conference rooms more welcoming and hospitable, or even just upgrading the seating arrangements in the company kitchen.
- Organizing in clusters. Aligning workspaces according to function, projects, or team responsibilities help develop a spirit of collaboration and a common sense of contribution. Keeping such groups together can redouble that shared mission and improve collaboration both within and outside the team. It also helps avoid random, isolated seating arrangements that often occur after reorgs.
- Encouraging personalized cubicles. Community isn’t the same as conformity. A community is a group that bonds together while keeping everyone’s individuality intact. For that reason, employees should feel free to personalize their own office space with items and decor that means something to them, whether it’s family photos, individual items, or a sense of personal style. This approach helps promote both the diversity and integration of the larger group.
- Adding sightlines. Whether it’s turning the top part of a partition into a clear window, clearing pathways to improve access, removing office clutter, or simply maintaining the open spaces, keeping visibility in an office environment helps remind employees of each other’s presence.
- Making the office atmosphere more comfortable. The office is not a home, and it’s important to maintain separation between the two. But that doesn’t mean the office should be an unpleasant place to spend time. Comfortable furnishings, casual-feeling places for discussions, reasonable amenities like food, or even homey houseplants can help bring work groups together in an uplifting, communal spirit.
Factors to consider when designing your office workstation and cubicle layout
The best office workstations are models of efficiency. But more than that, they’re environments where people spend major portions of their lives. When it comes to designing your workstation or cubicle, part of the job involves balancing productivity with comfort.
Several factors play a part in building a functional office unit. Here are some of the most important ones to take into consideration when designing your workspace.
Ergonomics is a real issue. It encompasses both your physical posture and the overall efficiency of your desk setup; the two go hand in hand. But most importantly, maintaining ergonomic balance at your workstation can help stave off physical discomforts than can develop into lingering health issues: chronic back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, or overall strain on muscles and tissues.
Study all the factors that contribute to ergonomic health: proper height and positioning of your desk and chair, organization of desk space to facilitate movement, specially designed keyboards and computer equipment, even special eyeglasses for viewing your monitor.
One of the knocks against cubicles is that they all look the same: exactly similar dimensions, blank-looking, perfectly conforming. Feeling at home at your workstation may not be easy, but you can make your cubicle more uniquely your own space by decorating it with objects that mean something personal to you. Artwork, photographs, plants, color schemes, even furniture like throw pillows or comfortable chairs can keep your sense of self intact.
A computer monitor doesn’t offer a sufficient amount of working light by itself. Overhead fluorescent office lights are a source of irritation for many and can even affect the health of those especially sensitive to its rays. A small table lamp can improve the ambiance at your workstation and feel more welcoming. Certain light bulbs can even compensate for the lack of natural sunlight.
Desktops are blank canvasses. True, they can be springboards for creative thinking and productive work. But they can also be agents of chaos with stray papers and post-its stacking up for months. Think about how the rest of your workstation and cubicle can help you be better organized and work more cleanly: file cabinets, designated space in office drawers, containers for stray items, or any items that make it more convenient for you to retrieve (and replace) what you need.
Contemporary desk arrangements—especially if they involve cubicles—are criticized for being dehumanizing. That’s partially true: poorly designed work areas can be that way. But it’s not difficult to make your space friendlier to your office community without sacrificing the privacy you sometimes need. Additional seating and a warm ambiance can help temporary visitors feel more at home (as would many of the suggestions in the “personalization” section).
What are the benefits of contemporary office cubicles?
Since their introduction to the world in the 1960s, office cubicles have become everyday homes for millions of workers in a wide range of industries all over the land. Right from the start, the convenient transport, setup and layout options rocketed cubicle popularity to the top of company and employee wish lists. In one fell swoop, employees could have their own private, comfortable space in which to work and employers had an affordable option for arranging an office configuration that strategically designated departments and company hierarchy.
One of the biggest drivers behind the rise of cubicles in office environments is their ability to promote a sense of individuality and personal space while maintaining a sense of team spirit with colleagues. Distractions are another challenging element to a productive workday and cubicles offer the ideal blend of privacy and collaboration. Even better, today’s iteration of cubicles goes far beyond the drab gray panels clumped together in a collection of squares. Modern office workers can choose from a rainbow of colors, panel heights and materials, and all manner of unique layouts.
Let’s look at some of the most powerful benefits of the contemporary office cubicle:
Sense of community
Instead of the once-common practice of housing upper management in private offices and relegating legions of worker bees to a depressing cube farm, modern cubicles help foster a sense of pride for the organization, where their ideas and efforts are welcome and valued. Groups of employees can also work easily together on specific projects as part of a team effort.
Save money and space
Building permanent walls throughout an office is expensive, time-consuming and messy. It also immediately separates employees from each other and supervisors. Cubicles are an instant money saver and streamlined new designs and layouts save valuable real estate in a large office. Better yet, companies can choose cubicles made with recycled material to support and promote responsible resource use.
Another great advantage with contemporary office cubicles is their flexibility. Gone are the days of rigid squares; today’s cubes come in an array of designs that are wildly easy to assemble and if you feel it’s time for a new look, simply separate the panels and create an entirely new configuration that promotes productivity, ease of movement and a vibe that fits your company’s unique image.
When it’s time for an office update, consider your company’s business model and staff needs. A new cubicle influx may be the spark of tomorrow’s success.
The importance of ergonomics when it comes to office furniture
If you are like millions of other workers across the country, you spend long, consecutive hours camped in an office chair staring at a computer screen. There’s also a good chance your posture is less than ideal, and day after day of slumped shoulders and curved spine isn’t doing your overall health any favors.
Ergonomics is more than just a marketing buzzword to sell fancy office chairs. In fact, ergonomics is a formal arena of scientific and medical study that happens to have a direct impact on workplace dynamics. When it comes to office furniture, ergonomics matters.
Ergonomics and you
Ergonomically sound furniture makes a big difference in everyday work environments. The difference between a “good” chair and a “bad” one is evident in reduced employee stress, fewer nagging aches and fatigue, and a dramatic boost in productivity. Studies have shown that ergonomic furniture has a direct impact on increasing speed and efficiency of work by easing the load on the body’s typical pressure points. On the other hand, neglecting employee health rapidly devolves into more serious health problems, errors in work, sick days and company-wide financial loss.
The right furniture makes the grade
Simply defined, ergonomic furniture is specifically designed to foster comfortable sitting and working positions for long time periods. Not only is this type of furniture noticeably more comfortable, it helps prevent injury to the shoulders, neck, and lower back. Adjustable supports from height to lumbar to tilt all combine to dial in the ideal position for long days of productive work.
Ergonomic furniture options
Today’s busy and conscientious managers have plenty of options in terms of quality office furniture. In addition to standing and sit-stand desks, other popular choices include kneeling chairs, stability balls, reclining chairs and even inverted, face-down “chairs” that are certainly not mainstream but some workers swear by them.
The end result is ergonomic furniture is very effective at improving posture while removing muscle strain and that all-over tired feeling from your head and neck to hips, knees and even your feet. Keep in mind that ergonomic related injuries lead to roughly 12 days a year of missed work time, costing far more than the typical expense of securing quality furniture at the outset. For example, health coverage to address an inflamed wrist runs more than $30,000.
An added and enduring bonus is placing ergonomics as a priority makes a statement to employees that you care for their health, and that sentiment is returned in productivity and loyalty.
When are office cubicles best?
Whether you are planning an entirely new office space or injecting new life into a current layout, you will likely at some point need to decide on the efficient use of cubicles to meet employee needs. The open office, agile trend has its fans and detractors but many industries and specific company dynamics benefit from the versatility and privacy of cubicle environments. Some companies even incorporate a blend of open, private, and cubicle. For example, if a cadre of employees spends a good portion of the day making phone calls or discussing sensitive information, cubicles offer a private and relatively quiet place to do so.
Does your office need cubicles?
Office space planning is a big deal; it must consider employee and senior management requirements, specific company workflow parameters, potential employee shifts between departments, and future growth. If you are gearing up to plan an office space or weighing the benefits of cubicles, keep these factors in mind:
Check with your employees
Current employees are not only reliable company assets; they can provide essential feedback on preferred work environments and what facilitates consistently solid performance every day. A dozen of your staff might vote strongly for cubicles while others wish to spend part of the day in a cube, with the option of collaborating in a more open space elsewhere in the room.
If your company initially jumped on the open office bandwagon but you see a parade of employees leaping (or falling) off due to the noise and distraction, the privacy of cubicles might be the answer to relighting the productivity flame.
Cubicles are the office version of Lego. It’s all about organization—employees are generally provided a small space in an office and a cubicle allows opportunity to set up that area in a functional way. In the bigger picture, an entire office space can leverage the flexibility of cubicles to organize in a visibly and operationally effective manner.
If you build a wall in an office, it’s there for the duration. If you decide you don’t want it, it means a lot of work, mess, and disruption in the day. Cubicles solve this problem with their versatile and easily moveable panels. You can rearrange them as many times as you need, adapt different configurations, and add new sections for additional employees as your company grows. This allows a beneficial space-saving and organizational option that is easy on the budget and looks great.
Why space planning is important in office design
The trend of makeovers fits everything from personal appearance to kitchens to your old car. Corporate and home offices also respond well to a new look and in fact, strategic office space planning has a big impact on inspiring employees with an upbeat environment in which they can contribute their best talents toward long-term company success. First impressions are also critical components in establishing rewarding client relationships when they see your office for the first time.
What is office space planning?
Office space planning is an element of interior design that specifically focuses on intentionally organized space layouts most conducive to collaboration and productivity throughout the workday. Communication between employees, quality work, and comfort are important end goals.
Why is space planning important?
Offices are most often made up of one or several large spaces where many people gather day in and day out. To that end, adequate planning and organization is critical to ensure the company dynamic and efficiency remain intact during evolving business growth. It requires being part oracle and anticipating your company’s future space needs balanced with those of today, while incorporating employee wish lists for an idyllic and productive work environment.
Bring on the image and hold the panic
A well-planned and presented office space exudes personality and charisma, like Steve McQueen striding into a room. A client visiting your office for a big seminar or product launch will be duly impressed with a smartly designed space filled with uber-productive staff and that could contribute to landing the year’s best contract.
Proactive organization is also of course a reliable deterrent to those last-minute panics when it comes time to adding employees, revamping entire departments, or establishing designated meeting spaces.
Location and type of seating is another important planning element. Daily tasks and activity of employees should be considered to ensure seamless workflow. For example, if a particular group works together most days, it would be prudent to arrange their seating in close proximity. Employees charged with frequent document management should be located close to printers, scanners, and other peripherals.
Ancillary facilities should also be considered, including restrooms, drinking fountains, and cafeteria or lounge area.
Blend the org chart
While companies’ internal structures vary, most house senior staff in separate offices, perhaps along outlying walls or upper levels, while other employees work in partitioned spaces or cubicles. Smart space planning takes this into consideration while simultaneously preparing for potential addition to increased employee numbers in the future.
Updating your office space on a limited budget
Do you work in a hopelessly outdated and uninspiring office space? You dream of an interior makeover but you’re strapped with a limited budget. The good news is there are lots of upgrades you can make that won’t break the bank and in fact, you can make improvements with no budget. Best of all, thoughtfully designed updates can go a long way in boosting your office’s value and helping your company grow.
Start with a plan and keep it simple. Focus on problem areas and think about employee needs, many of which focus on healthy workspace options. Nearly 90 percent of today’s workers put ergonomic seating or wellness areas at the top of their office space wish lists. Talk with your employees and design a plan that helps them be more productive while making the best use of your budget.
Here are some handy suggestions for budget-friendly office updates that make a difference:
Give it a new paint job
A fresh coat of paint is one of the quickest and least expensive ways to brighten up a drab office. And you don’t need to hire a professional crew—tap your helpful employees and team up to get the job done, and boost camaraderie at the same time. Have your team select colors that keep spirits up and make it fun to come to work.
Replace old flooring
Are your employees treading on old, worn out carpeting or other unsightly flooring? High-end flooring is very expensive but reputable laminate can hold up to heavy daily wear as well. Sometimes even just a thorough cleaning can infuse new life to an old floor.
Try a new arrangement
Hampered with a zero budget? You can still change things up by revitalizing what you already have. For example, take down old and worn cubicles to create a more open and airy space that inspires communication and teamwork. You can also rearrange cubicles to blend quiet workspaces with customer areas.
Bring in foliage
Nature is filled with soothing elixirs and bringing some of it into your office can do wonders. Plants have relaxing effects and they can boost productivity as well, and are extremely beneficial in cleaning interior air.
Refresh the current lineup
Repaint old, grizzled desks, cover chairs with colorful fabric, add unique furniture items from secondhand stores or garage sales. A few little changes here and there don’t cost much but can make your office seem brand new.
When and why office cubicles were invented
Did you know that the office cubicle layout with its loved or loathed reputation was originally designed to bring out the best in workers? Debuting in the heady days of the 1960s, cubicles were intended to make office environments breezy, less confined, and altogether more efficient. From whence did this ultimately complicated office element come?
Office workers and executives all o’er the land can thank (or at least salute) designer Robert Propst for introducing the cubicle. Propst headed up the research division of legendary furniture manufacturer Herman Miller and envisioned a better way to work, with flexible and customized office space that inspired more effective work than an armada of big, heavy desks.
Indeed, the typical 1950s and 60s office worker labored in expansive, open spaces packed with row after row of huge metal or wood desks, with a background hustle of clanking typewriters, noisy telephones ringing all day, and an eternal haze of cigarette smoke. (Ironic, given the recent trendy return to the open office layout.)
Introducing the Action Office
Propst saw the answer to the office layout blues in his Action Office, focused on lightweight sitting and standing desks and filing systems. He designed the original cubicle in 1964 to empower people and thought “productivity would rise if people could see more of their work spread out in front of them, not just stacked in an in-box.” Acoustical panels helped insulate workers from the noise of telephone calls and typing, and the panels became miniature walls of multiple heights that separated each space into its own office without completely cutting workers off from colleagues.
But corporate America didn’t use the Action Office (Propst introduced two iterations) the way Propst intended. Instead of following his design for roomy desk spaces and walls of different heights, they chose tiny, boxed-in desks instead and cubicles were used to cram even more workers into offices. The office layout he envisioned shrank until it became impersonal and crowded, and the age of the cubicle farm had begun.
The U.S. government also helped the cubicle movement take off. In efforts to stimulate business spending, the Treasury Department implemented new rules for depreciating assets, allowing companies to recover their costs quicker by buying furniture that “acted like offices” rather than offices themselves.
In the past 50 years, cubicles have become ubiquitous and now represent a $3 billion industry. Interestingly, cubicles of various design are often integrated into open office layouts as quiet retreats and private work areas.