Opinion: How will  COVID-19 change  design?

The pandemic has forced designers to reassess how we interact with the spaces they create

There is much debate around what should change in the post-COVID-19 workplace. While many say the pandemic will transform the office, it is more likely a catalyst that will accelerate trends that have already taken hold, such as supporting flexible working and the introduction of spaces designed to support wellbeing and physical health. 

There's no doubt that the virus is propelling us towards the next-generation workplace. And there are further challenges, too, that designers will need to satisfy.  

Take hygiene, for example. It's at the forefront of many people's minds, but that doesn't mean design around cleanliness has to be purely functional. London design studio Bompas & Parr's Fountain of Hygiene competition was launched for designers to rethink the concept of a hand sanitiser. Entries included bubble machines, apps to measure bacteria levels, and a hand-sanitising doorbell.  

This is not the first time design has been forced to adapt because of disease. Early 20th-century architects like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe sought to create hygienic buildings that not only exemplified their minimal aesthetic, but also warded off illnesses like tuberculosis and influenza. They did this by moving away from the traditional ornamental interiors of the time and instead used materials that were easy to clean, such as hard flooring. They also included large openable windows to help improve air circulation.  

At TOG, we've responded to our members' immediate needs by introducing measures including stringent cleaning regimes, one-way systems to facilitate social distancing, and screening and partitioning between desks. But it doesn't end there.  

Designing spaces around wellness has always been important to us – now, more than ever. We've always placed great emphasis on including natural light in our offices, and we are currently investing in air filtration and natural ventilation for the buildings.  

We will also continue to focus on creating spaces to recharge, meditate, practise yoga and exercise. I'm particularly proud of United House's dedicated mindfulness lounge, which will host a variety of sessions for members. The space is designed as a cocoon to encourage a mindful state, with low lighting and an installation by artist Lauren Baker that adjusts the chakras through colour. 

Our time spent in lockdown has highlighted the fact that the office needs to work even harder to satisfy our needs. Not only must it be clean and conducive to good health, but it also has to be a destination people choose to go to, like a favourite coffee shop or hotel; a place that celebrates social interaction, and provides a reason to come to work beyond completing tasks we could do at home. As designers Jay Osgerby and Ed Barber of Barber Osgerby say: 'The office now and in the future will only be a place where people come together, a meeting place… This is why we say the desk is dead, and not the office is dead.' 

We are seeing a demand from our members for more open spaces in the buildings to meet, create and collaborate. We've responded by removing desks and replacing them with open meeting tables and lounge furniture. It's in an environment like this I recently met with our design team for a face-to-face creative brainstorm. We may have spent the whole meeting catching up on each other’s lives, even though we see each other on Zoom almost every day, but we built stronger bonds with each other, which are necessary when creating company culture and camaraderie. 

The office isn't dead, but is evolving into office 2.0 – an environment designed to celebrate our human interaction and creativity.  

Nasim Köerting is TOG's head of design