Workplace Design During Covid-19

As we adapt to living and working while the pandemic continues, the question becomes about legacy. Will Covid-19 leave a significant lasting legacy on the design of our working environment, or will it simply be a case of reigniting temporary measures whenever needed?  

Ian Mitchell of Oktra

Ian Mitchell is a design director at Oktra, a leading fit-out company in the UK, specialising in workplace and office interiors. We sat down with Ian over Teams from his London office to find out how workplace design has been impacted by Covid-19 and to discover his opinions on the legacy the pandemic might leave.




Here at Oktra we design and build office interiors, so we get involved with the whole experience and life cycle of a fit-out project for clients. And the significance of that is you are really immersed in the client's recent experiences with the pandemic and how it's affecting their workplace, rather than just being involved with the design bit at the front, or just building an office. The fact we're doing both elements, you really feel a responsibility to hold the client's hand and understand how they can get through this. Almost every project has been impacted by Covid-19, on all manner of levels.

Oktra-Ian Mitchell-Office Design-Office-London
Oktra-Ian Mitchell-Office Design-Bar-London

Have you experienced a demand from clients for leadership on adapting spaces for Covid-19?

Definitely. That question was very popular April, May, June when things really were kicking off and there was almost the unknown of the pandemic as it was spiralling, and businesses were thinking, well, "How do we go to work? How do we make our offices safe? What does it look like? Can you help me?"

They were asking us for the answers as a business, and we were forming the answers based on government guidance, producing what we were calling Covid plans, which modified existing floor plans to factor in two-metre spacing, which was in a crude sense, drawing circles around desk or work areas to indicate where people could sit, showing ‘one-way’ directional signage and adding sanitiser stations. Clients would be surprised at how few staff they could actually accommodate. And that's continued to this day, to the point where a lot of us are just at home, of course.


That raises the issue of the long-term feasibility of space. Are clients approaching you with worries about that now spaces have been adapted?

I think it's a mixed one, that, and there's two sides to it. The first side is clients could think, "Right. Everyone's going to want to work from home now, why do I need all this space? I can get rid of half of it. I can sub-let a floor," but that could be short-sighted. With social distancing, you actually need that space to spread people out, to fit more people in, in a safe way. By just halving your real estate portfolio, you could end up doing further longer-term damage if things like this happen more frequently. You need the space to spread out more, and I think clients or tenants, should maybe show caution about getting rid of space too hastily.  


Are clients concerned then with how to adapt their spaces in the long-term, beyond the adoption of stick-on vinyl graphics and perspex screens to a more fundamental approach to their space?

They are and we're guiding them through. And what that looks like is furniture dedicated to more collaborative working, where you can position things in corners. Maybe it's a four-person booth, but one person would be using it in a safe way. And when we're space planning desking, we're not necessarily racking it full of desks. Ordinarily, where you would try and fit 100 desks now it might be 40 desks in the same space. This is because you're designing an office in an agile way to accommodate 100 people in 20 fixed desks and 15 agile settings, which can be a high booth, or a wooden table with some dining chairs around it in a cool place. It can be lots of different things to prevent people having to sit next to each other every day of the week. They can move and be more physically agile.

Read the Oktra guide to navigating change


This is quite a strange dynamic in the workplace, which is fundamentally built around interaction and people coming together and collaborating Now, Covid-19 is asking them to separate and not collaborate. Does that reshape our attitude to what we see as a good working environment?

That's an interesting concept, almost conflicting behaviours there, isn't there? Because yes, on the one hand, you want to come to work, sit on your own, be safe. But equally, the reason you're coming into the office is because you need to interact with other people, for whatever reason, a stand-up meeting, whatever it might be. And those behaviours are not going to go away. it's actually proving that the trends of office design, which we were adopting anyway, are even more important now. By that, I mean agile spaces.

So, when you want to do some work, don't rely on just sitting on desking next to another person. The ability to be spaced out is key. Will that affect how people collaborate? I don't think so. Because we're all in it together, it's not departmental, this sort of behaviour, or industry specific. I think it's actually across the board and we're all understanding of that, which has helped us all digest this change.


We've seen a huge shift in six months for the shopping behaviours of consumers during the pandemic. Do you think that acceleration is true of office design as well?

Yeah. This might sound a very bad comparison, but the vaccine for Covid-19 has taken six months or so and a drug like that normally takes 10 years, but we've made it happen because it was absolutely do or die. It was critical, life critical, so we made it happen. And likewise, applying that sort of logic to office design, we had to adapt quickly in order to give clients what they needed. There was certainly a feeling of having to adapt the workplace to keep businesses, to keep industry running. How can we make offices safe and usable still? So, it's no wonder we've jumped to it to make it happen, to make it work and it's here to stay. I would definitely say so.


How important is the selection of materials going to be? Do you think we're going to see a new wave of antibacterial finishes, or is it really simply about just making sanitisation more readily available?

That's again, another trend I can't see diminishing anytime soon. I think it's also something we're doing a lot of. Clients, if they're not asking for it, we're recommending it. And such measures, such as mobile sanitation points, hand wash points, sanitization and availability of PPE. All those general hygiene things we're doing on the one hand, and equally materials and surfaces, it's very, very important that we have that option for clients, should they want it.

One thing we've been doing recently is specifying touch taps, and some clients have just asked us to swap out their existing normal taps, to minimize staff having to touch surfaces. On the same note, obviously a lot of businesses have access control security passes to get in a door and you can have those with automatic openers, so we're retrofitting those sorts of things, which is an expense on top of the usual costs of a fit-out project.


Do you think Covid-19 has taught clients something about office design then and about a human-centric approach, or is it still really about head count and that just being more limited for them now?

It has definitely made all businesses realise the place the office plays in society. And it means that they need to adapt the office to be more than just a place for a desk and a computer. It's actually got to be a safe destiny away from home, where you need to undertake tasks with other people.

It's also a place for socialising, which is obviously tricky when social distance is involved, but Covid-19 has also exposed members of staff who are struggling working from home. They don't have a place to work at home, nowhere they can concentrate. And all these little factors come out of the woodwork when you talk to your colleagues, which starts to actually answer the question of what do you need an office for?

And we have it here. Lots of the young guys say they maybe live in a flat share, maybe with people they don't know that well. They actually want to come to the office. They want to spend time here, beyond just coming in and sitting at a desk all day. And by doing so, it makes them feel valued, learn more in terms of training and from others through shared experience or mentoring.

How is a young employee going to get on in life and learn from other people by sitting at their parents' dining room table? I think we need to be able to encourage that kind of collaboration without forcing staff to do it, of course.


There's a certain amount of people in the position of senior management who have been behind homeworking. They have a comfortable homeworking environment and might have a separate office, but there's a huge proportion of the working population that doesn't have that luxury?

Exactly right. And that example is a perfect illustration of why you've got to think, we might be okay working at home in our study or whatever it is, but most people are not like that. And so, we have to listen to those voices and ask them, "What do you need? What do you want? What would make you feel comfortable to do your job?"

Because those staff members are going to be your senior management one day and we want to look after them. We've got to make sure that we keep them happy now, so they can progress and do their job well and so they're not just going to sit at home and get ill, get unhappy, suffer mental health issues. Those things we have to be mindful of. And I certainly think Oktra are addressing that well, because we've got a lovely office here. Our staff want to come in, they want to spend time here, and the door is always open, so to speak.  


What is the biggest single thing the pandemic has taught you about the design of workspaces?

It reassures me that the office is not just a place to work, it is also a place for many behaviours, and many activities. And it's got to have so many more elements of a home environment in terms of finishes, wall finishes, floor finishes, so that you go in and feel comfortable just spending time there, to do a job you have to do. And that concept actually, I find makes my job easier because it relaxes you. You're designing a space that isn't always corporate and serious, and dah, dah, dah, it's a big thing. It's actually a much friendlier space. The office is a friendlier concept, more than it's ever been. And Covid-19 has confirmed to me that the office has far more to it than maybe we realise, certainly in the importance it has for people.

My job changed quite a lot in the last year. It's opened my eyes, all of our eyes, to a shift in how we do things. And at Oktra we want to be pioneering the response to Covid-19 in the workplace and how it will change as the pandemic hopefully diminishes.

With thanks to Ian Mitchell, design director, Oktra

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