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Harnessing cutting-edge digital tools to plan a safe return to the office

1m Distancing

By James Ward, Associate Director of Architecture at Arup

As the prospect of a second wave of coronavirus looms, the government has announced a host of new restrictive measures on people and business. Notably, this includes a reversal on its previous messaging, with the Prime Minister once again urging employees to work from home if they can.

The latest measures are undoubtedly much lighter than those announced in March and many offices will remain open. Nonetheless, the new rules will decelerate the UK’s return to the office, which was already progressing slowly. This should be viewed an opportunity, given that it buys time for employers, commercial property owners, developers and tenants alike to plan the management of a safe reopening of their office spaces.

While there is much disagreement over how best to handle the virus, there has been universal alignment on the principle of maintaining physical distance between people to slow transmission rates. The importance of retaining this practice has been reiterated in the government’s latest public information campaign slogan, “Hands. Face. Space.”

The question of how many people can safely occupy a space is one that many organisations must now address. When dealing with limited numbers in the early stages of semi-reopening, this question can be solved fairly easily through pragmatic approaches to capacity developed by in-house FM teams. However, the issue is likely to become much more complex and carry much greater risks as the number of employees coming in to offices returns to normal levels, in tandem with the continual evolvement of government guidance. 

Thankfully, there are a number of digital data-driven tools to help manage such a situation, which can be employed to reshape office space, laboratories, retail spaces or indeed, any other venue where people congregate. An example of such a tool is Arup’s Space Explorer, which combines the power of crowd simulation with data and spatial analysis.

2m distancing - Arup
1m Distancing

Data and spatial analysis allows architects to rapidly model existing layouts and test against a variety of possible scenarios to optimise the use of desk space or re-plan them to maximise occupation. Generative techniques can be used to rapidly action adjustments and establish the greatest capacity possible within government regulations. Further, iterative mathematical optimisations can be harnessed to test the location of business units and teams on the floor, as well as reconfigure their placement. This allows for the mitigation of potential issues of physical day-to-day iterations between teams.

Crowd simulation is an equally valuable asset when it comes to the planning of reopening offices. Running simulations permits the mapping of proximity in those areas where breaches of social distancing rules are unavoidable, such as along circulation routes and in lobbies. Improvements can then be made by reconfiguring furniture layout and introducing one-way systems.

When it comes to reopening tall buildings, understanding the length of queues that can safely be accommodated in office reception spaces is vital, especially where lift capacity is reduced to allow for social distancing measures and the management of temperature checks is required. Such issues may need to be circumnavigated by landlords by reconfiguring spaces and phasing the arrival of tenants each morning.

Perhaps the most significant use of digital analysis is that it can highlight areas of disproportionately high exposure. Such areas are often adjacent to aisles and can be difficult to spot. This analysis allows senior management of an organisation to engage with colleagues on the best measures to take to ensure that a workplace is as safe as possible. 

The maintenance of safe workplaces is a challenging and multifaceted task, and not limited to acts of physical distancing. At this stage in time, many unknowns abound regarding the true implications of the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, we may not realise these for months or years to come. For now, however, data and spatial analysis alongside crowd simulation can help provide employers, commercial property owners and others with the necessary reassurance and support as they look to implement safe arrangements in their workspaces. Given the invaluable insight into staff interaction, it’s highly likely that the value of such tools will continue beyond the pandemic, helping to model the office space of the future.

Words By: James Ward, Associate Director of Architecture at Arup

James Ward - Arup
James Ward – Arup

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