End of Open Plan Offices? Smart Solutions for a Safer Office

Last Week

We reviewed Digital Twins through the lens of Venture Capitalists. From a review of the technological landscape, we discussed how emerging digital solutions can help towards the current coronavirus crisis through the ability to model various scenarios.

This Week

We look in more depth at how digital solutions could alter the process of design, as mentioned in our Digital Twin Urban Regeneration article. Looking at the challenges COVID-19 poses to office spaces, we talk to former VP of Product Design & Development at furniture company Herman Miller to discuss whether this really is the end of open plan offices and how digital solutions can help us work towards a more agile working space and safeguard the safety of employees.

Our Expert: Stephen Perkins, former VP of Product Design & Development at Herman Miller

I’m an interior designer by education and I started my career in London working for several design consultancies, mainly on commercial office interiors, space design, and space-planning.

I joined Herman Miller in 1993, and worked for them first in London and then in the South West of the UK. Over my 26 years with Herman Miller I did a number of roles. I started as a Product Application Specialist where I was working with customers to design their spaces and helping them change and transition from more traditional offices to a new type of space. I did some selling, which was good experience but not where I saw my future, and then got back into product design. I ended up running the international product management and product development functions, establishing and building a number of design and development capabilities across the globe with teams in China, Hong Kong, India, Brazil, and here in the UK.

My final role at Herman Miller was Vice President of Product Design & Development for the International business group. During my five or six years in that job the business grew rapidly. We were growing and expanding quickly which enabled us to design and develop many new products all over the world.

With a rapid company growth, what was the most interesting thing of the last five years that you saw within the industry?

The most interesting aspect was seeing new and emerging economies come to the realisation that the workplace can help retain and attract staff, as well as improve productivity.

That was how Herman Miller’s business growth came about: There were a lot of economies emerging from a weak position and they were keen to grow their businesses quickly and one of the ways of achieving that was to design great spaces to attract the best talent to work for you.

Of course decent salaries attract people, but a lot Human Resources professionals will tell you that money solves the problem for a short period, but it never it never solves retention long term. Other factors need to be considered and space is one of them. The environment that people are in and the way you develop those spaces is key.

It was exciting, as a design-led company, to see lots of businesses wanting great spaces all over the world and to able to help them achieve that.

What would you say was the biggest trend for office spaces before COVID?

The biggest trend was collaborative working. There was a global shift that saw companies taking down barriers and getting people to work collaboratively and function as a community. This movement started in Australia and the Netherlands, who have always been the leaders in developing collaborative working environments, and we started to see that change being adopted all over the world.

The US was initially slower to adopt collaborative working spaces because they have got acres of cubicles in most offices in the country that continue to make the transition more complicated. However, the more progressive and dynamic companies, mainly on the East and West coasts, had the ability to start making those changes. Rapid change then happened in the US as they observed the productivity benefits, the increase in staff retention and attraction through creating great space and more collaborative environments.

How do you think COVID-19 has changed this trend? Are we at the end of Open Plan offices?

Initially there are going to be challenges in maintaining collaborative environments and open plan offices. Its easy to see how locking individuals away in a cellular office, with their own door, could start to become appealing but staff have still got to go to the toilet, a meeting room or the café, so there is no solution that offers total isolation within an office space.

However, I do not believe it is the end of the open plan offices. It will be a matter of utilising a combination of things to solve the social distancing situation in a way that is easily adaptable and/or reversible.


One of the solutions is having less people in offices. Home working will definitely increase and there may be an adjustment of work patterns. This means that if you have an office design for 1000 people today, and you adjust working patterns and home working options so that you’ve only got 500 people in the office at any one time, then you should be able to maintain social distancing within that environment.

Adapting Collaborative spaces

If you remove breakout spaces, you can then turn those into work areas to allow people to sit further apart. With that you can still be collaborative but from the distance of your own working space.

The idea all companies somehow spending huge sums of money, which they might not have available, and turning everything into a series of cubicles again, is unlikely to happen.  

Is it a matter of redesigning office furniture and layouts to be more organically mobile?

That will be the primary challenge. Over the last few years, despite economies growing, businesses have been spending money to reduce their real estate costs, and accommodating more people by having collaborative working spaces combined with limited home working. As a result, many companies have spent a huge amount of capital on redesigning offices and accommodating flexible-working, which has reduced the number of people in the office and their real estate cost. But there has got to be further and more drastic design changes in these unprecedented times.

Redeployment of space is going to be #1

Organisations will now be looking at their existing spaces and redeploying space usage. Cafes, breakout spaces, meeting rooms, auditoriums and office gyms will be adapted to suit the current need in a way that can be organically reworked or reinstated at a later date, which is likely to be easier than trying to redesign the whole office.

Recreational areas in the short-term aren’t going to be used for their original purposes. We are not going have 100 people gathering in a lecture space or training room any time soon, so you could easily take that piece of space and put in workplaces to accommodate more people into the building.


If there’s an open desk with a screen that’s only 300mm above the desk, that screen might be replaced with a screen that goes up to 800mm. This solution might not stop bacteria moving around or viruses being transmitted, but this concept is centred around the impression of feeling safe.

This is a similar method to how acoustics work in open-plan offices. Companies assume that if you put up a screen that it will solve the acoustic problem and quieten conversations. The data does not support that theory, but people feel it does, which is why this method is still implemented, and I think it will be the same when it comes to the idea of physical barriers protecting them from catching a virus.

Consequently, there is an opportunity for furniture designers to create products that can be deployed quickly and allow companies to move their products around simply and put things on desks that allow people to work in safety and feel as though they are protected.

Do you see these adjustments as an opportunity for more high-tech solutions?

Yes – It will drive lots of companies to look at technology-based solutions and it gives an opportunity for designers, and companies, to start embedding technology into their products and furnishings, stemming from a desire for data gathering to become part of the norm, and for people to accept that as part of the experience at their work. However, there is always going to be push back with each technological advancement.

Communication Tools

Home working has made communication technologies more commonplace and people have become more comfortable using it. With staff embracing these technologies, it makes it easier for companies to adjust working patterns and make remote working more accepted. However, scaling these technologies up for larger companies is always going to be more complicated. One-to-one conversations over Skype, zoom or teams is easy but when you have 10-20 people in a meeting, it becomes more complex.


There are plenty of companies out there already that have been investing in, and utilising, new technology for many years, whether that be developing it or outsourcing to companies that provide specific solutions for them. For instance, there are plenty of systems available where chairs are designed to detect when there is somebody sitting in it. The sensor doesn’t know who is sitting on the chair, but it allows you to know how long they are at their desk, or how long are they in a meeting. You can put sensors around a door so you can tell how many people are in a room or put sensors underneath the carpets so you know where hot spots are, where people congregate, and where the traffic is the highest and the lowest.

Individual tracking

The biggest push-back from employees has centred around technology that allows individual tracking, as it has the potential to breach their privacy, especially considering the tracking App may go on their personal smart-phone. The adjustments to the office space as a result of COVID-19 introduces the possibility of high-tech solutions being re-evaluated not just on the company level, but on an individual level within the office. People are looking for fast solutions to a global heath issue, and by introducing technologies that can gather data and use it to adapt their working environment and keep them safe may alleviate their concerns over personal privacy.



Do you see organisations having to become more reactive to spaces?

Companies are certainly going to have to become more agile and quickly respond to their employee’s wellbeing and safety needs.

Real-time rather than Retrospective

To move at the speed required, furnishings have to be more agile, more flexible and easier to redeploy so that nothing’s fixed and spaces can immediately ‘react’ to the current need

The way space utilisation is currently done is firstly by performing an occupancy survey before the company redesigns their space or moves to a new space. This is done to see how people are working, how happy they are with their current workspace, how efficiently the space is being used and to determine the flow around the office. You then do a post occupancy study after a few months to understand the same again, so you can see how things have improved and changed and those studies go on so they can see which spaces are not used and which spaces are used. The problem is that businesses are not quick enough to make the changes which is not going to be good enough in a post-pandemic world.

To move at the speed required, furnishings have to be more agile, more flexible and easier to redeploy so that nothing’s fixed and spaces can immediately ‘react’ to the current need or observed needs. The biggest problem with flexible work environments is that some electric power needs a cable and not everything is wireless which means furnishings are not easily movable.

Sensors for increased Sensitivity

One of the best solutions I have seen for this type of immediate space reactivity was an Edinburgh based tech company where their facilities team implemented IoT sensors all over the office to see which spaces are used and how many people are using those spaces all the time. They were not interested what the individuals did in the space, just whether anybody used it or not. If they found a space wasn’t being used, they came in with police tape, closed the space up and within a week they redesigned it and used the sensors to observe if the change had worked.

“We’re listening to you and we are making changes.”

I hope companies will follow this example and start gathering, analysing and using data on their office space to iteratively redesign, adapt, improve and redeploy spaces. That’s where digital solutions come into play. If you have a simulation, or digital twin, of a space you can do iterative analysis to allow quick redesign of a space. This isn’t just for offices; this type of agile adaptation is suitable for larger spaces such as train Stations to help you explore how many barriers to put up quickly and temporarily to move flows.

Ultimately, if people are feeling insecure in their workplace because of a virus then they won’t come to work so companies could end up losing a lot of work days. So, you need to get people feeling secure and actually saying “we’re listening to you and we are making the changes.”

Do you think that this is going to, ironically, increase collaboration within companies?

Over the years larger companies have got increasingly better at involving their staff in the design of the space. They will have teams of people who are general staff representatives on a design committee who contribute towards the redesign process. However in short term, given the circumstances, companies are going to have to talk with people even more than before.

Collaboration will have to be key as you will have to build trust with staff in a way you haven’t done before in order to track what’s going on more intimately within the office whilst ensuring people are comfortable with these measures.

It is easy to envisage a lot of buildings having temperature sensors at the at the doors requiring people to stand in a booth at the front desk and have their temperature measured. This could lead to companies giving over more space to medical facilities so if somebody has a high temperature or coronavirus symptoms, they can be isolated very quickly.

People will want these measures whilst the pandemic is still active, but the data required to make it work is health-based and personal: Do you think the type of data needed to sustain these adaptive spaces is sustainable?

That is going to be one of the biggest challenges – People will want to see these measures now, but will they want to see it in a years’ time when they start to feel safe again? Will they start reacting against the intrusions?

I think there is going to have to be a drastic cultural change. It’s interesting that in the UK we accept that we are one of the most watched nations in the world, with the ability to track anybody anywhere in the UK, yet in certain places like offices we don’t like being tracked at all.

Our privacy is paramount and as a culture we are not used to being tracked in the same way as other countries are. Many Asian countries have temperature guns in the immigration section of their airports that far pre-date the pandemic. We’ve never had that level of monitoring in the UK and I think we’re going have to start getting used to it as it is likely it will come into office spaces.

Practically there is no reason why you couldn’t have a held handheld temperature gun in an office, and I’m sure there’s a company out there designing temperature measuring systems that people simply walk through, and businesses will be buying these products. But companies will have to make sure that their staff know that the measures they are implementing and continue to implement post-pandemic are being done to maintain their safety.

Do you think companies will start to increasingly adopt data into the design of their spaces because of the pandemic?

Undoubtedly. One the biggest costs for many businesses is real estate. As we enter into a recession, companies will be looking to drive costs down, and data can help understand the key issues and drive cost reduction strategies.

Even before COVID-19 companies were reducing the cost of real estate. Collaborative working spaces have been allowing them to do that. As workspaces become smaller and some people work at home part of the week, you might have an office that has capacity for 600 people when there’s actually 1000 people based there. This space design has allowed them to reduce their real estate and they won’t want that real estate cost to go up, which is why it’s unlikely that companies will be spending money to increase their real estate to accommodate social distancing. It’s going to be a real balance for businesses because you’ve got to maintain your staff working productively, and that’s not just about space, that’s about them feeling happy and safe.

Ultimately technology is going to be a big part working towards working solutions that make people feel happy and safe, whether it be from an environmental or health perspective from the moment you enter the building. But certainly, as companies get more and more data to help them redesign their space and understand how it’s being used, that’s going to be a critical component for making space decisions over the next few years.