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October 20, 2020

Rethinking workplaces and work stations

L’emergenza Covid-19 ci ha costretti a rivedere luoghi e modalità di lavoro per fare fronte a un Cigno Nero, un evento imprevedibile e di enorme impatto

Il Covid come Cigno Nero

Our belief that open space offices and areas for shared activities inside a large hub represented the new frontier of the workplace, destined to grow and evolve, has been unexpectedly and emphatically turned on its head by the pandemic. Suddenly, proximity and interaction – the key elements underpinning this design – are a problem, or rather The Problem.
Our world has changed before our very eyes and has obliged us to adapt our working methods to deal with this unexpected event, whose effects will continue to resonate for a long time. To quote the famous definition of the philosopher and mathematician, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Black Swan is an event that is so rare that even the possibility that it might occur is unknown, it has a catastrophic impact when it does occur, and is explained in hindsight as if it were actually predictable.

Black Swan event is an unpredictable event with a catastrophic impact and which is explained in hindsight as if it were actually predictable

La corsa ai ripari: lo smart working

How has the business world dealt with this Black Swan? By deploying the only possible response or the only response applicable in such a short time: working from home. Originally viewed with distrust and only used by a tiny minority, working from home has become the new normal for many companies over the last few months.
However, even though this has allowed companies to continue to operate in many cases, the price of no face-to-face contact has been high. This importance of this aspect should not be underestimated given that physical interaction encourages brainstorming, discussion and personal growth (as well as often being essential for the worker’s psychophysical well-being).

I limiti del lavoro da remoto

Working from home is a stopgap measure in response to the Covid-19 emergency, but its long-term deployment raises many questions about its consequences. Is it realistic or even a good thing to work from home for ever?

The first and more obvious limitations relate to those jobs that cannot be carried out from home and are, therefore, by definition excluded from the WFH approach. However, even positions that can theoretically be performed at home present difficulties. For example, not everyone has the right tools or space to work from home, which can have psychological repercussions: some people might be embarrassed about their home, the presence of their children or other family members who may interrupt conference calls, and so on.
These repercussions are not limited to this aspect. According to a survey carried out by the newspaper La Repubblica*, during the lockdown, Italian employees worked on average three hours more a day leading to greater stress, anxiety and fatigue. This does not consider side effects such as eye strain due to the excessive number of hours spent in front of a screen.

Working from home can generate practical, psychological and health issues, but is it the only alternative to working in an office? What impact will the lack of the social contact have on the creation of ideas, projects and innovation?

Last but not least is our need for socialisation. As early as the fourth century BC, Aristotle stated that “Man is by nature a social animal”. This concept has been reiterated more recently by others, including the economist Nicolas Bloom who emphasises how face-to-face meetings are essential to stimulate and develop new ideas, such that “the collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation. The new ideas we are losing today could show up as fewer new products in 2021 and beyond, lowering long-run growth”. In other words, the negative effects of working from home exist and will be felt into the future.

Nuovi spazi per il lavoro

The complete abandonment of offices would seem to be unrealistic for several reasons. So what are the best practices to allow people to return to working in the office safely? Is this a chance to rethink what an office should be?

Space is the first element to be considered. Large enough spaces need to be available to ensure professional distancing in compliance with Covid-19 regulations. Apart from the social distancing to be provided by adjusting work stations, the management of shared spaces is a significant issue: the common areas where people congregate and move through have to be redesigned to avoid bottlenecks. To avoid the risks associated with highly populated areas, we need to rethink how they are used, as well as how people get to them and how long they stay there. So it is a new way of moving within buildings, but it is also the use of technologies that up to a short time before were only deployed by the healthcare and a few other sectors, such as ultraviolet light to sanitise bathrooms, lifts and meeting rooms in line with the hospital model.

In this respect, especially if work stations are not permanent but shared by different people on different days, it is fundamental to adopt the clean desk policy: desks with standard equipment are assigned to those who need them as required, and who clear them of all their personal objects at the end of their day so that they can easily be sanitised and ready for subsequent use. This approach should also be adopted for desks that are permanently assigned to employees, so that it is easier to properly clean them.

Flessibilità di spazi e orari

The second element that should be considered is time. In order to limit the number of employees present at the same time in the workplace, companies could introduce different working hours and shifts. Companies could also transition from a head office model (housing all employees) to a hub & spoke model, like that already used in the US civil aviation sector and now also widely applied in hospitals. The underlying concept is that costly specialist expertise is necessary for complicated illnesses that cannot be provided throughout a country. Therefore, the more complicated cases are concentrated within a limited number of hubs while the other cases (below a specific complexity threshold) are channelled to the spokes.

Adapting this organisational model to the business world could see a structure whereby the hub assigns the various activities to the spokes, located in different areas of the same city.

What are the advantages of this model? Less populated offices and, especially, reduced travel by employees who can work from the office nearest their home without being obliged to travel long distances on public transport (with all the related risks) or use private-owned vehicles, which would benefit the environment. In addition, the reduced time spent commuting would translate into more time for the employees and their families and a better life-work balance, leading to happier employees which should mean better professional performance. 

The crisis can be used as a pilot for the creation and application of new models, forcing us to creatively rethink our entrenched work habits and methods, leading to a win-win situation.

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