On an otherwise ordinary January lunchtime in the canteen of a car parts company in the small town of Stockdorf in Southern Germany, a worker turned to a colleague and asked them to pass the saltshaker, in return they got the salt and the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. This, according to German scientists, was the earliest community transmission of COVID-19 in a country that has now registered over 3.7 million cases and almost 90,000 deaths. The January 22nd canteen scene was one of dozens of mundane incidents that the scientists have logged in a medical manhunt to trace, test, and isolate infected office workers.
Those regularly visiting a workplace are nearly twice as likely to test positive for COVID-19 than those working at home, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In a July 2020 study, over 300 people were given COVID tests and asked for information about their lifestyles. The results showed that workers who tested positive for COVID-19 were almost twice as likely to commute to work, compared with the workers studied who tested negative. "Businesses and employers should promote alternative work site options, such as teleworking, where possible, to reduce exposures," the CDC report recommends.
Data from Public Health England suggests that office environments have had more COVID outbreaks than other type of workplace. Figures obtained by the BBC 5 Live Investigations team via a Freedom of Information request reveal that offices top the list for susceptibility for outbreaks, even ahead of hospitality venues. The data shows that there were more than 500 outbreaks, or suspected outbreaks, in offices in the second half of 2020, which is more than in supermarkets, warehouses, cafes, restaurants, and construction sites combined… and it seems open-plan offices appear to be the worst offenders.
Open offices present a greater risk because they are indoor areas where workers are likely to engage in face-to-face collaboration, swap desks, and move around far more than in more rigid office settings. A study led by Charles Gerba, University of Arizona showed that bacteria found on one office doorknob could spread across 40-60% of employees in two to four hours, exacerbated in more dynamic open-plan offices. "They have high occupational densities with little social distancing and are often sealed, with air-con just recirculating pathogens like COVID," said Professor Phil Taylor, University of Strathclyde. "Hot-desking is commonplace and cleansing is hit and miss. It's a toxic combination."
While COVID-19 may seem to many like an isolated event that we must manage to minimize the risk until it is gone, that is not the case. New diseases are emerging every year with the potential to become the next pandemic and, according to many experts, human development is making such diseases more and more likely. 75% of newly emerging diseases are zoonotic (from animals) according to the EcoHealth Alliance, COVID-19 itself is thought to have originated in pangolins sold at wet markets in China. Our impact on the climate and our encroachment on wildlife habitats have driven their transmission to humans, while urbanization, overpopulation, as well as global travel and trade, have created the ideal conditions to turn an outbreak into a pandemic
The solutions being proposed by leading experts from around the world, therefore, revolve around those major global issues. In offices, changes to workspace layouts, cleaning routines, HVAC configurations, and social distancing are being applied to manage the risk of COVID-19 and create greater resilience against future disease outbreaks. The long-term necessity of mass remote work is being seriously considered and debated as a public health solution to a future of regular pandemics. Such a solution is scientifically based but the opposition to mass remote work suggests that real connections between people are vital to collaboration and company culture. So, how can we achieve real connections without being in the same physical space?
The answer may come from the evolution of computer games. 40 years ago advanced gaming involved playing Pong, today we have numerous massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG). In such games, you can essentially enter another world through an almost photo-realistic immersive environment. Extrapolate out this rate of change over the foreseeable future and we quickly arrive at virtual realities that will be near indistinguishable from actual reality. While remote working may seem soulless and uncollaborative to some, the future virtual office would be much closer to a physical world experience but without the biological dangers of virus transmission.
A virtual office is not just a virus-free office either. Its digital nature would adapt to the needs of the company and the employees with an unlimited supply of meeting rooms, chairs, and tables. A virtual office can be one thing in the morning and something else in the afternoon, it can look one way to one person and completely different to another. It can morph into whatever the company wants and allows it to be. A virtual office can also be much less. Nothing to clean, nothing to maintain, no commute times, no parking problems, no energy systems to optimize nor light bulbs to change. It may sound like something from a futuristic sci-fi novel but it’s closer than you think.
In September 2020, Facebook launched it’s mixed-reality workplace the Infinite Office. Users can work across multiple customizable screens and in customizable environments using the Oculus Browser, while also seeing live feeds from the onboard cameras so that they can integrate the VR world with their own home. Sony has also launched a mixed reality project called Parallel Eyes that allows four people to share what they see with one another and for onlookers to watch as well, promising all kinds of interesting new applications. While Florida-based startup Magic Leap launched its mixed-reality headset, Magic Leap One, last year to allow users to inhabit a hybrid physical-virtual world.
“This isn't sci-fi. It's spatial computing, which will enable machines to be responsive to us in real-time thanks to a combination of various technologies: sensors, 3-D capture, rendering, algorithms, and wearable displays,” says Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute. “It will take time to develop this technology and move it from the fringes to the mainstream, but our lives will change profoundly once every room we're in is also a computing environment. Blueprints and 3-D designs will transform into spaces we can see, walk through, and inspect before any nail is hammered.”
In a world of more regular pandemics, the future virtual office solves the workplace risk problem, but this is not just a virus mitigation strategy. The virtual office is the future of work, offering the most flexible workspaces imaginable by creating them in the digital realm. Forget the limitations of buildings, rooms, desks, and chairs, in the virtual workspace everyone gets a corner office, with windows overlooking whatever they want, we can work on the beach of our own private island or on an alien world. The virtual office is virus-free but it can also be so much more.