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Thousands of New Zealand office workers will be able to leave their homes and return to work under alert level 2, but with restrictions on corridors, bathrooms, lifts, kitchens, meeting areas, reception, desks, shared spaces and equipment.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has just announced a graduated move to level 2 this week, meaning employees could call their tens of thousands of office workers back.

One major bank will abandon hot desking in its national headquarters as employers plan new layouts in offices, seen by some as the new cruise ships for their potential to spread the pandemic due to staff proximity.

Robyn Worthington, ASB's people executive general manager, said arrangements were being made for more than 2000 staff to return to the waterfront ASB North Wharf on Halsey St in the Viaduct/Wynyard area.

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Asked about plans for proximity, hot-desking, close spaces, shared spaces and co-worker spaces, Worthington said the bank would move to fixed seating and desks.

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More intensive cleaning, physical distancing, work-from-home options and virtual meetings were other moves being considered, she said.

The Australian Financial Review last week interviewed James Calder, who helped design that country's first activity-based workspaces (ABW) in 2001 in the MLC centre, North Sydney.

Inside the revolutionary ASB North Wharf. Photo / John Gollings
Inside the revolutionary ASB North Wharf. Photo / John Gollings

"They're just like land-based cruise ships," Calder said of offices. "It's the end of activity-based work as we know it," said Calder, global director of Woods Bagot-owned consultancy Era-co.

"Until we have a vaccine, I can't see how ABW work settings in their full capacity mode can actually be used. They're just like land-based cruise ships. The circulation paths are intended to make people meet as many other people as possible – I know, because I've designed them. They're the perfect incubator for passing this thing around," said Calder who has also worked on New Zealand buildings.

WorkSafe says moving to alert level 2 brings many more people doing business back to work "but the risk of Covid-19 transmission in the community remains, though the move reflects the risk is lower. This means it's safer to do a range of work activities, including having customers on premises and having some workers return to the office. Implementing or maintaining infectious disease controls remains vital for the health and safety of workers and other people."

Worthington said ASB had around 5000 staff and she expects fewer people in offices and branches, ensuring they do not move away from their immediate team environment.

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Other sources said businesses were considering basing half their staff at home week on/week off while alert levels continue.

So, what were once seen as floor plate efficiencies now become a potential drawback.

Many Government agencies also moved to activity-based working in the last few years and PwC in Auckland was in the process of moving into new $1b Commercial Bay offices before lockdown.

ASB North Wharf: revolutionary open-plan open-floor design. Photo / Richard Robinson
ASB North Wharf: revolutionary open-plan open-floor design. Photo / Richard Robinson

Weeks of planning were now needed before such businesses return to their office because they now have to work out how to alter layouts. Perspex sneeze guards between desks are being considered overseas.

Worthington said ASB had to make rapid changes to the way people worked. More than 4000 staff had working from home, she said.

"As New Zealand moves to level 2 we'll phase a return to the office to ensure we can continue to keep our people safe through physical distancing and other considerations.

Working from home would remain an option for some, she said.

"While some of our staff are looking forward to returning to an office environment, we acknowledge that some people are anxious about this, and we are very mindful of that as we work with them on timing and safety measures," she said.

Changes would usher in new physical distancing measures, limiting the use of meeting rooms, managing kitchen use and foot traffic flows, she said.

Working from home was rewarding and pleasantly surprising, she said. No commute times, more flexibility, more opportunities to exercise and to be with family were some benefits.

Campbell Barbour of NZ Retail Property Group, said suburban offices with larger floor areas, away from the CBD and less confined, more open surroundings in retail landscapes were far better.

John Walsh of the Institute of Architects. Photo / Supplied
John Walsh of the Institute of Architects. Photo / Supplied

John Walsh, Institute of Architects' communications director, said we had all been sold the benefits of constant stimulation or what used to be called distraction.

"So the orthodox elements of new upmarket offices are atriums with bridges and ramps that route people into chance meetings; breakout spaces and pods; internal cafes and lounge areas. The rhetoric around shared working spaces or activity-based working has become tiresomely evangelistic. Every random encounter is presented as an opportunity for a conversation that could lead to a paradigm shift in the thought process," Walsh said.

He now expects a backlash against those designs. Activity-based working may as well have been designed as a Covid-19 incubator, Walsh said.

People would now be nervous about such layouts and tenants would pass that onto building owners and architects.

"Architects will now be starting to think about pandemic design. This may be a constant from now on. No-one knows how long the virus will be a threat, and does anyone think that Covid-19 will be the last viral pandemic?" Walsh asked.

Popular perceptions and changes in behaviour had design implications.

"Think about the Christchurch rebuild. After the 2011 earthquake, people in the city did not want to be in even modestly high-rise buildings. Building design has taken that sentiment into account and the rebuilt Christchurch is a relatively low-rise city," Walsh said.

The longer the Covid situation goes on, the more profound the design effect will be, he said.

Architects will be thinking about shared spaces in buildings, access and circulation areas, lifts and stairs, kitchens and bathrooms.

"They'll also be thinking about the layout of open-plan offices. Covid-19 has turned activity-based working thinking on its head. The operating principle is now managed distance, not creative proximity," he said.

Building users will want predictability and reassurance.

"Another relevant factor is remote working. Ironically, managing distance could now be easier for many companies. What the lockdown has demonstrated is that many employees, for much of the time, do not have to be in the office. Productivity is not dependent on physical presence in the office," Walsh said.

The institute was itself acutely aware of these issues. It moved into an activity-based working building in Wynyard Quarter a year and a half ago.

"Like everyone else in such an office environment, we're trying to figure out how we now might work safely and efficiently, and what sort of space we really need, and how much," Walsh said.