Market Insight

Office ‘space’: Has the evolution of the office negatively impacted employee health?

March 31, 2020

Drawing on his lengthy career in commercial property, Reading-based partner and commercial property expert, David Thomas, explores how the office has evolved and what potential effect COVID-19 might have on future office demand and design.

Over my career of nearly quarter of a century dealing with office space, I have seen a gradual transition in office occupation trends. 

These have evolved from large individual offices, typing pools and corner cubicles housing cathode ray monitors, to large bench desks with desktop PCs. Then to slightly smaller desks with Citrix boxes, and now to increasingly smaller bench desking with laptops and tablets.

During the same timespan, office occupancy ratios have shifted downwards from circa 200 sq ft per person to just 80 sq ft per person in many offices, and less than 60 sq ft per person in some serviced or co-working space, as we become more agile, tech gets smaller and electronic filing becomes the norm. 

But what effect has the evolution towards smaller office space and occupancy ratios had on our physical health? 

We already know that, in the drive to achieve greater efficiency from commercial property, the reduction in desk sizes and occupancy levels has negatively impacted productivity, with issues such as noise disturbance cited as having an adverse impact on concentration levels. 

Yet, amid the recent outbreak of Covid-19, has anyone explored whether the current office design could potentially impact employee health, causing increased illness due to the close quarters we now keep at work? 

Making a direct causal link between the two would no doubt be challenging, but in light of our current circumstances, it is worth some thought?

Aside from the emergence of COVID-19 in December 2019, it has been reported that in the UK, the number of people dying each week from seasonal flu was far higher in 2019 than average, with 10,958 deaths recorded in England and Wales during the last full week of November. 

This was nearly 8% higher than the average for the same time period over the previous five years (10,164) and Office for National Statistics data shows nearly 800 more deaths between November 16 and 22 than the average in 2014.

So is it conceivable that the office environment where we are now all more densely packed together than ever, together with poor hand hygiene and the pressure to be at work when sick, are all stoking the viral fire? 

Ask anyone anecdotally and they will point to instances where coughs and colds have circulated offices for months on end. 

Indeed, in the US, ‘sick building syndrome’ is a ‘thing’, where complainants say poor indoor air resulting from more energy-efficient buildings is to blame for increased instances of illness in the office environment. 

If, as advised, we are to maintain two metres or 6 feet from each other, the office environment as it currently exists does not provide for this. It would equate to 172 or 140 sq ft per person in office terms, depending which guidance you are adhering to. 

With many office buildings now designed based on one person per 86 sq ft of space, are employees being forced to work too closely – to the detriment of their health? 

If recent office tours in London are anything to go by, where some 70 people were sat at desks traditionally designed for half that number, and co-working spaces designed for two housed 10 people, then perhaps. 

However, let’s not forget that there are already many office environments where a focus on health and wellbeing positively impact employees thanks to their abundant outdoor space and the variety of wellness initiatives available. 

With this in mind, we could therefore see a boost to Business Parks post-COVID-19, where green space and plentiful parking will enable people to maintain sensible distances from one another. If this outbreak and the associated social distancing measures go on for as long as many predict, then it could prove to be a potential opportunity for business parks across the UK.

Not only this, on the back of the recent business exodus from London to the Thames Valley to access talent and save on rent, perhaps COVID-19 will help drive many more to take advantage of the less crowded trains and tubes, with a relocation out to the region. 

Whatever happens, we know that home working is unlikely to become the norm. 

As human beings we miss interaction with our colleagues, and broadband and mobile phone signal problems present practical communication issues, meanwhile noise disturbance from family members makes for too challenging a home working environment in the longer term. 

So, when we do eventually return to our offices, perhaps more thought needs to be given to building design for wellness, creating more space per person for the public health greater good.

We could even see an increase in space standards if social distancing is applied to office design to help prevent the spread of germs in a post-Covid-19 world, with a potential positive impact on office demand. Although, with lockdown set to continue for some time yet, it may be a while until we can tell.

For help and advice to support your business through COVID-19, Vail Williams, can help.