COVID-19 has proven that, for the most part, people can work fairly effectively from home. Yet far from spelling the end of the office, it will instead permanently alter our perceptions of how we use it and what purpose it serves. Here’s IOBAC CEO, Paul Woolvine, featured in designerati looking at how flexible flooring is the foundation of future office design.
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Flexible flooring: the foundation of future office design
COVID-19 has proven that, for the most part, people can work fairly effectively from home. Yet far from spelling the end of the office, it will instead permanently alter our perceptions of how we use it and what purpose it serves. Those are the thoughts of IOBAC Ltd CEO, Paul Woolvine who we caught up with recently. He believes that a shift toward a more flexible, agile office has been a long-time coming and only accelerated due to the global pandemic. In his words, “now is a time of opportunity for the built environment; a time to rethink the offices we want in society; and a time to opt for inherently more flexible solutions.”
We’ve adapted, so will our workspaces
The combination of an increasing adeptness at working from home, a growing trend toward more agile, flexible workspaces, and the COVID-19 pandemic all points to one question: will the office ever be the same again?
It’s clear that the workplace will have to adapt quickly in the short to medium term to deliver a safe environment that staff can trust as they return to the office. While in the longer term, the demand for better quality physical environments and experiences will increase. Rather than a death-knell for the office, Paul sees this as an opportunity for change, with flexibility sitting at the heart of an evolution of our built environment.
“I don’t believe that home working will replace office-based working permanently,” says Paul. “After all, we’re social beings and while, yes, most people work to earn money, we also work because we enjoy coming together to create ideas and solve problems.”
A US study found that only 12% of workers want to work from home full-time and research published by Vodafone recently seems to demonstrate just how much we value time spent in the office. 40% of those surveyed claimed they miss office jokes and light-hearted chat while working from home. Over one third (35%) said they miss having the company that colleagues bring and bouncing ideas off one another. 22% miss the motivating “office buzz” while 17% miss the grown up conversation and learning from others.
“We would, however, be naïve to think that we can maintain the status quo when it comes to what purpose our offices serve,” continues Paul. “The pandemic and people’s increasing expectations simply won’t allow it – and rightly so. Office buildings that allow for greater flexibility will be the winners and making offices based more around community than control a key ingredient for success.”
Paul is quick to point out, however, that this trend has been gathering pace over the last several years. “It would be wrong to say that the pandemic has solely brought about these changes. Office design has been moving toward greater flexibility for some time now. The pandemic has only highlighted the reasons for this shift and probably accelerated its roll-out.”
So, what will that mean in practical terms? “I don’t think, as some people have suggested, that we’ll return to 80s-style cubicles. That would be a real regression. Instead, desks in rows may well be replaced by spaces for collaborative working and culture building, such as areas for training, induction, collaborative work, social events, networking, and conferences. Moving forward, these are surely the sorts of activities that will suit offices best. Offices spaces will also become more varied with more spaces to meet, eat, exercise, and unwind.”
And how will flooring help to facilitate this step-change? “Aesthetics always has and always will be a key driver and a range of different top-coverings and patterns to stylishly segregate these different spaces will be vital to achieving that. Business may have a space for relaxing and refreshments, meeting spaces, desks, and quiet spaces all on the same floor. Each of these separate spaces will need its own look and feel and use materials suited to its purpose. Flooring is, of course, a key part of that. A meeting space may need carpet tiles, the social area a timber finish, and the co-working space LVT, for example. It can sometimes be tricky to fit these different flooring materials together seamlessly using traditional installation techniques.
This is where modular flooring and IOBAC’s solutions come in, as Paul explains. “There’s no doubt in my mind that modular flooring is the modern, sustainable way forward for office design. Take our MagTabs. They’re clever little magnetically receptive squares onto which you can affix a whole range of top coverings, from carpet tiles and LVT to ceramic or timber. There’s three core benefits to this technology. Firstly, install time is significantly reduced and there’s no harmful adhesives required, which is a big tick for the environment and business owners’ bottom line. Secondly, repair and maintenance is made easier and cheaper because you can simply peel up an individual floor tile or small section of flooring and repair or replace. And lastly, if you feel like a change or a larger scale re-fit, then you can quickly and easily move flooring around.
“There’s no adhesive; you don’t get stuck with glue and there’s no harmful residue left over. Simply peel the flooring up and re-use or recycle – there’s no contaminated flooring to send to landfill. The base layer that’s left behind is also left completely uncontaminated meaning it’s safe and ready for flooring to be installed right away.
“Let me paint a picture for you. You have a floor of an office building with, say, four different coverings and you want to rebrand the space. Or perhaps for practical reasons it needs to change. Whatever it is, imagine being able to simply peel up those floor coverings like fridge magnets and swap them around. Or, if you’ve got a patterned floor, being able to move individual pieces around to redesign it. And imagine being able to do that in a day, or overnight, without any harmful residue. Just by doing this you can make individual sections of flooring and whole rooms and office floors look brand-new and completely different.”
It’s this flexibility and capability to transform office spaces quickly, inexpensively, and sustainably, that Paul believes is the future of office design. But in the immediate term, he also sees flooring playing an important role in keeping people safe in the office.
Safety above all else
“It’s understandably a tricky time for architects, designers, and property managers,” Paul says. “Aspects of office design will undoubtedly have to change to keep people safe, but in a challenging economic climate, many companies may not have the capital to make wholesale changes or buy more space. So, the solution may lie in reinventing; making shrewd changes to existing office space with smart, flexible solutions that can be quickly implemented for the short to mid-term but are also future-proofed.
“There’s likely to be a whole raft of different safety procedures and protocols implemented by businesses all over the world, and they’ll need to get that message across to their employees clearly. Now, we’re obviously well-versed at keeping a keen eye on road markings. It’s also no secret that we spend a huge amount of our day (3 hours, 53 minutes a day, on average) looking down at our phones, often while walking from one place to another.  It’s why some cities around the world have adopted pavement lights to catch the attention of smartphone users. Floors and what we put on them will undoubtedly have a crucial role to play in keeping people safe.
“We’ve already seen two-metre distance and one-way markings on the floor used to good effect in supermarkets and public spaces, including offices. But we’ll need to go further in some places and perhaps act more subtly in others. Take commercial office spaces, museums, and libraries as an example. The messaging won’t necessarily detract from the experience of the space, but people will still need to feel safe and comfortable. Colour-coding, one-way hallways, footfall traffic systems, sanitation stations and reminders to wash hands and keep a safe distance (to name just a few) are all things that will need to be clearly signposted. Some may consider floor tape, but this is unlikely to be robust enough to withstand constant footfall. It can also look pretty scruffy. Demarcation that’s integrated into the flooring itself is the safest and most coherent option. It’s also the most aesthetically pleasing and can include company logos and be designed in-line with brand guidelines. What’s more, when that flooring is magnetic a whole host of flooring coverings (LVT, carpet, timber, ceramic etc.) can simply be peeled up and moved.”
Flexibility is key
Whatever happens in the months ahead, it seems certain that how and where we work will change. And if we’re honest about the shortcomings of previous office environments and embrace innovative solutions like those presented by Paul and IOBAC, then they’ll change for the better. Offices can emerge from this period as safe, stylish, and cost-effective places; places as flexible as the workforces that use them.