COVID-19 forced many of us to stay at home for the safety of our loved ones, as well as the general public. For most in the industry, this was our first forays in working from our private residences for hours of the day. Quickly and collectively, we discovered that there were pros and cons. For those who managed to work remotely, depending on industries and individual situations, WFH has its positive side. This can include reductions in commuting time and expense, individual working space that helps you concentrate and a more flexible schedule. Meanwhile, some jobs cannot be done remotely, and not everyone has an accommodation that supports WFH.
Time To Be Flexible
Regardless of individual situations, mandatory lockdowns left behind thousands of empty office spaces in the cities. Back-to-back cubicles and enclosed spaces up in the CBD towers are not compatible with post-pandemic safety requirements. As people gradually come back for work, there has been an urgency to improve the flexibility of these fixed and enclosed spaces.
Flexible design is not a new concept brought up by pandemic-compatible architecture but an idea that has been developing since the late 20th century most iconically seen in the metabolist movement. Approached from the scale of urban design, the movement proposed the idea of designing built environments that can update themselves according to changes in spatial needs and the wider urban environment. Scaling down to the size of the furniture, foldable chairs, extendable table and pull-down stairs are all familiar tools for adjusting spaces according to needs.
WFH might become part of our working life in future — not only because of the unpredictable pandemic but also due to the developing desire for more private working environments. Some firms now offer partial WFH as an option while some are doing shifts to control the number of people indoors for maintaining social distancing. How should future designs respond to these changes in working patterns? Here are some possible directions to go.
1. Open-Planned Office
This is not a new approach but it might observe growth in its popularity in the post-pandemic era. Less internal partitions mean more freedom in spatial rearrangement to align with social distancing regulations as well as changing production processes. Specifying spatial function is an easy — and in some cases necessary — way to design spaces that meet the requirements. However, multipurpose spaces that adapt to different functions can increase the occupancy rate, especially for rooms of very occasional uses. Open-plan also leaves greater tolerance to one-way circulation under special circumstances like the pandemic.
2. More Multi-Purpose Spaces
Under a flexible working schedule, some people would tend to work from home when focusing on individual tasks. As a result, offices function more as spaces for collaborative or collective activities. When considering future office layouts, the collaborative to individual spaces ratio should increase if possible. This could be done by substituting individual working areas with open-planned discussion spaces or making more function-fluid areas that can accommodate informal discussion or be turned into formal conference rooms.
Spaces that Adapt By Size
The capacity of a traditional conference room is usually fixed in so far as walls, tables and chairs are fixed in layout. Compared to a wall-less, completely open-planned office, moveable partitions allow more privacy for group works while making resizing spaces possible. While movable walls needed to be handled carefully, soft partitions such as curtains are a choice of easy operations. Partitions on wheels can resize the space the most freely, while walls (folding, sliding or rotating) on rails offer better spatial and audio enclosure but are not 100% mobile.
Flexible façades allow workplaces to switch between enclosed and semi-outdoor. Good natural ventilation is not only vital during the pandemic but also an indispensable part of general health and safety design and energy saving. When shut, the façade helps reduce thermal loss and cool the interior down by drawing fresh air in when opened. Furthermore, retractable facades, roofs and wall systems can even turn indoor spaces into outdoor spaces, although this is currently more realizable on low-rises.
The Future of Flexible Design
The pandemic might be the catalyst of flexible workplace designs, but it is the growing desire for privacy and individuality that underlined this trend. Beyond them is the refinement in industrial manufacture, mass production and prefabrication that facilitate all the mobile mechanisms we need for flexible designs.
Flexible design shares some characteristics with prefabrication architecture. For example, they both come with plenty of moveable components that can be easily dismantled. Nonetheless, they are not to be confused. Flexible designs consider spaces temporally with a variety of scenarios, while prefab architecture is breaking structural and constructing limits. They are supplementary thinking to each other rather than alternatives. Together they are leading towards a future where even the towering office buildings are transformable and transferrable, turning dense cities into metabolizing, living existences.