Illuminating the Post-Pandemic Office – featured in Lighting in Design (Crown Publications)

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At midnight on 31 December 2019, as we all celebrated to welcome in the New Year 2020, who knew that the world would be turned upside down with the arrival of the world pandemic!

The year started out so promisingly, however, as soon as the first cases were reported, there was a noticeable hold off on some projects.  I am sure that the lockdown that started on 26 March 2020 in South Africa, impacted by the pandemic.

The United Kingdom followed with a lockdown that also lasted for some time.  The United Kingdom had a high infection rate coupled with a much higher death rate than South Africa.

Easing of Lockdown

The South African nation welcomed the gradual easing out of lockdown and the limited opening of the economy in much the same way that other countries did.

This was the time when I began to research and contemplate what the interior lighting of offices, call centres and boardrooms would look like.  I communicated with companies who were able to return to function, albeit with limited staff numbers during Stage 4 being restricted to 30%.

Without exception, they all stated that they had made various adjustments to ensure that they would be compliant with the required measures for social distancing, thermal temperature checking and completion of health questionnaires before allowing entry to the premises.  They also display COVID-19 Information posters throughout their facilities.  The other measures included hand sanitising at entrances and at any point of service.  After the end of the day or between every shift where shifts were functioning, a sanitising team would sanitise the premises completely.  Several companies opted to introduce a shift or platoon system to make it possible for as many employees to work as possible to assist companies to eliminate any backlogs for deliveries resulting from the lockdown period.

Occupancy in open plan offices was adjusted to ensure that there was sufficient provision for social distancing, a new requirement previously unheard of.  Employees whose job functions allowed or who suffered from comorbidity conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, high blood pressure, any form of cancer even if in remission, cardiac or respiratory conditions, were required to work from home (WFH).  This assisted to reduce the occupancy in open plan offices but more importantly reduced the risk to the employer and to the individuals.

Then of course, business owners, directors and employees alike had to become accustomed to wearing a face mask whilst working continuously throughout the day.

Of course, this is only half the story for the employee.  Employees had to be encouraged to immediately remove their shoes before entering their homes at the end of their working day, to sanitise their shoes, handbags, laptop bags and then sanitise or wash their hands well with soap and water to ensure that they minimised the risk of infection.

Typically, call centre operators squeeze as many operators or seats as they are known, into the available space, each seated at a small desk with the computer screen and keyboard occupying the main area on the desk surface.  There is usually only sufficient space between the rows of desks and occupied chairs to just manage to pass when taking a break.  Keep this in mind when I discuss some of the measures that are now necessary to minimise the risk of the spread of the virus.

The new normal office reception

What is really known about this COVID-19 virus?  Even the leading experts are still trying to learn more about it.  They already know that there are different strains of the virus and that there are six different sets of symptoms from 1 to 6, with symptoms 4 to 6 being the worst.

How long will it last?  Will the virus simply die out?  No one knows, in fact, it was originally estimated that it would last to the end of 2021, but now the experts are talking about it being around until at least 2023.

This means that as professionals in the build environment, we will have to adopt new adapted approaches to interior design and in particularly to lighting.

Office Now

The responsibilities for any office administrator or facilities manager are now extremely onerous.

Provision must be made for social distancing marks at every entrance to an office building or suite of offices.  At the entrance, someone must be designated to take visitor temperatures, complete the contact questionnaire and require the visitor to hand sanitise before entering.

Reception furniture will move away from comfortable couches to individual easy chairs which make it easier to arrange and maintain social distancing.

Reception areas are sanitised regularly as soon as a visitor leaves before any new visitors enter.  The social distancing “Safe Zone” stickers should be fixed to the floor.  Lighting could embrace sensor technology to show green for a vacant safe zone turning red when a safe zone being occupied.

Lighting for this area could include down lights to illuminate the social distancing safe zone markings

Where lifts/elevators are in use, occupancy should be indicated using adhesive disks on the floor.  Typically, a standard passenger lift for up to 14 passengers would be limited to about 4 to 6.  This means that the lift lobby needs to be marked appropriately to indicate the required waiting positions to maintain social distancing.  This will apply to every lift lobby on every floor.  Similarly, “Safe Zone” stickers should be fixed to the floor to indicate where to stand and wait to maintain social distancing.

Clearly, the passenger number restrictions will create pressure at peak times.  The only way to minimise crowding and pressure is to stagger working start and end times.  In multi-floor buildings, the staggering could be coordinated to avoid congestion.

The “new normal” elevator setting

The seating in meeting rooms and/or boardrooms should be at least 1.5m apart.  If the meeting room table or boardroom table is narrow, “sneeze screens” should be fitted although everyone will be wearing face masks.

Cluster seating should be spaced to maintain 1.5m between desk seating.  If desks are back to back or clustered, “sneeze screens” should be fitted.  Sneeze screen height should be at least 600mm high.  Where desks already have low partitions, “Sneeze screens” should be added to ensure that the overall height is 600mm.

Personal space should be taped off on the floor to ensure that social distancing is maintained at all times, even within the office when moving around.  Where new offices are being constructed, and where offices are to be carpeted, the marking could be incorporated into the carpet design.

Wherever possible, the flow within the offices should be in a circular one-way route.  Where this is not possible, the communication route within the office should be divided into lanes indicating the direction of flow.

Where new offices are being constructed, and where offices are to be carpeted, “personal space” marking could be incorporated in the carpet design.

In pause areas, canteens and other communal facilities, all seating should be spaced to maintain social distancing.  This is especially important when meals or refreshments are consumed because during those times, face masks will be removed.

At the end of the working day or the work shift or platoon, the decontamination unit moves in to sanitize the office or call centre in readiness for the next working day or shift/platoon to arrive.

Co-working Facilities

The optimisation of space that co-working space operators enjoyed has gone and co-working space facilities will now need to be adjusted for fewer numbers who can be accommodated at any one time.  In addition, every working space will require “Sneeze screen” units to surround each working space.  Seating should be spaced at least 1.5m apart.  Personal space at each workstation should be indicated on the floor.  As in offices as discussed about, movement flow should be shown on the floor to maintain separation during movement.  This will be especially important on stairs.

The casual “coffee bar” work areas will also require “Sneeze screens” between each work space and seating must ensure social distancing.


All lighting will always have to be fully compliant with the applicable standard and regulations, however, the task areas are most likely be reduced.  This will mean that task lighting could be reduced and that the task and ambient lighting may have to be relocated due to the changes in layout.  When changes are to be made, it is advisable to use a qualified professional illumination engineer to ensure that any changes that may be necessary will always be fully compliant with all standards and regulations including fire standard requirements for emergency escape lighting.  That too may require adjustment.

Changes will be easier to effect where Power over Ethernet (PoE) lighting is in use.

Whatever we do, we embrace “Light Nutrition” as promoted by Terry John of LifeLight Studio in London, United Kingdom.  It also addresses Human Centric Lighting (HCL) which is lighting for human well-being.


Many may argue that the measures will only be temporary.  According to leading scientists, virologists and other experts, the COVID-19 is here to stay for at least a few years even when vaccines become available.  It is said that multiple doses will be needed to be protected against the virus.  Apparently, vaccines will only be available in 2021, however, 7 billion people will need the vaccine, it will take some time to be rolled out putting the further dose of the vaccine aside.

A further problem which is anticipated is that the virus may continue to mutate.  There are already 6 variants, all of which are running concurrently.  Then there are different strains such as the Dutch strain that infected the Western Cape and which is not found outside the Western Cape.  It is called the Dutch strain because it apparently was brought unknowingly to the Western Cape by a Dutch tourist prior to lockdown earlier this year.

There seems to be so much that scientists and experts still do not know about the virus.  They do not know how the mink in Europe came to be infected with the virus.  This new phenomenon is worrying where there can be human to animal transmissions and vice versa.

It is for the reasons above, that the new measures being introduced and adopted by offices throughout the world, will be here for some time and into the future.  It is, perhaps, not a bad thing anyway because offices will be healthier and the occupants’ well-being will be improved.

Phil Hammond, BHA School of Lighting


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