A physical distancing tool that uses generative algorithms to plan office occupancy is being offered by Gensler to clients in the UK as they gear up for a return to work
Software called ReRun has been developed by US design and architecture firm Gensler’s Chicago team to identify optimised layouts for open-plan offices compliant with social distancing buffers recommended by national governments and health authorities in response to Covid-19.
The software is intended as a form of cursory design review to rapidly quantify workplace capacity before undertaking more comprehensive studies using survey and occupancy planning tools, if required.
'We developed ReRun when we realised we didn't have all the right tools in the box to address the new need to measure supply and demand and what offices can actually accommodate given the new guidelines being issued,' says Wes LeBlanc, principal and analytics director at Gensler. 'We're not health experts, but we're taking our cues from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organisation to help us evaluate the supply and demand equation.'
The system imports existing floorplans, as DWG files, then overlays social distancing ‘bubbles’ that represent buffer zones required by employees in the workplace. Hundreds of different scenarios can be tested in near real-time to identify the neatest arrangements where bubbles do not overlap.
The impacts of social distancing will be very different depending on the number of employees and the shape, size and workstation layouts of different office spaces.
'We are starting to collect a lot of really interesting information,' says Mitchell Bobman, associate and analyst at Gensler. 'Social distancing will have less of an impact on more standard linear spaces with cubicle ‘barriers’ and larger individual workstations than on more modern highly dense types of work environment where people are close to overlapping one another. Each organisation is going to have a unique set of problems and challenges.'
However, the software does not assess the impacts on other shared office areas, such as collaboration, amenity, circulation and shared spaces. According to Gensler, these will require a less quantitative approach using other design or operational interventions.
Research carried out by the practice found that, in the US, anywhere between 10 and 25 per cent of office employees are expected to return to work in an initial phase, working in staggered shifts. An interim phase, which may extend over several months or over a year depending on the availability of new treatments or a vaccine to tackle the virus, is expected to see up to 50 per cent of employees return.
ReRun has demonstrated that even the most densely packed office plans can accommodate 50 per cent of staff without significant modifications.
'Office owners and tenants are not currently looking to go in and rip everything out,' says LeBlanc, 'but the long-term implications are very much unknown and still in play. What we learn collectively as a society over the coming months will influence those long-term solutions.'
The trend towards office densification is expected to hold in the near term or reverse to some extent, bolstered by increasing interest in remote working. A recent survey completed by Gensler found that more than half of workers would prefer to continue working from home in some capacity, rather than return to the office full-time.
'Now that we're going through this work-from-home experiment and figuring out how to make it work for us, that trend is going to stick with us, to some extent, for a long period of time,' LeBlanc concludes.