Work, but not as we know it – featured in the Lighting Journal (The Institution of Lighting Professionals, UK)

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From socially distanced workstations and communal spaces through to ‘sneeze screens’, coronavirus has been rapidly changing the way workplaces are set out and used. In time, this could mean having to totally rethink how we approach workplace lighting, argues South African lighting professional Philip Hammond

At midnight on 31 December 2019, as we all celebrated the arrival of 2020, who knew that the world would be turned upside down within a matter of weeks by a 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 the lockdown that started on 26 March in South Africa impacted everyone to various degrees, no matter what type of business or job. There are possibly few places on the planet that have not been severely affected.

The UK of course followed with a lock-down that lasted for much the same length of time as ours in South Africa. The UK has had a high infection rate coupled with a much higher death rate than South Africa, however. At the time of writing (late July), South Africa is now fifth in the world in terms of infections, but our deaths are still (thankfully) low by comparison to the UK.


This article is going to look at our experience in South Africa of moving out of lock-down and back towards some form of physical workplace ‘normality’. More widely, the conversations I have had with companies that are reopening has allowed me to reflect on and contemplate what the interior lighting of offices, call centres and boardrooms might begin to look like in the post-pandemic world.

In South Africa, like in the UK, the government has put in place guidance, advice and regulations to make workplaces safe to return to, mostly focused around social distancing and infection control.

Without exception, all businesses in South Africa have been required to make adjustments to ensure they are compliant with government-required measures for social distancing, thermal tempera-ture checking and completion of health questionnaires before allowing entry to the premises (and more on reception areas in a moment).

They are required to display Covid-19 information posters throughout their facilities. Other measures that have become commonplace include hand sanitising facilities at entrances and at any point of service. In some organisations, after the end of the day or between every shift where shifts were functioning, a sanitising team will sanitise the premises completely.

Several companies I spoke to have adopted 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.

Another big change is that in South Africa, unlike in the UK, business owners, directors and employees alike have had to become accustomed to wearing a face masks whilst working continuously throughout the day.

Covid-19 is, of course, a new virus and everyone is on a steep learning curve about it. We know there are different strains of the virus and at least six (so far) different sets of symptoms have been identified, with symptoms four to six generally being deemed the worst.

We also don’t know if, or when, it – and its threat – will disappear. When a vac-cine becomes available? When it simply dies out? No one knows. Some experts are now talking about it being with us at least until 2022.

What that means for us professionals in the built environment is that we will probably have to adapt how we approach interior design and, in particular, interior lighting for some time to come. Let’s look at some different areas of the workplace in turn.


When it comes to entrances and reception areas, provision must now be made for social distancing marks at every entrance to an office building or suite of offices. Someone must be designated to take visitor temperatures, complete the contact questionnaire and require the visitor to hand sanitise before entering.

Reception furniture in many organisations is now moving away from comfortable couches to individual easy chairs, as these are easier to arrange and maintain social distancing. Social distancing ‘safe zone’ stickers, again, are fixed to the floor.

What does this potentially mean for lighting? First, LED control/sensor technology may now have added value in this context by, for example, using sensors to show ‘green’ for a vacant safe zone, turning ‘red’ when a safe zone is being occupied and so on. Creative use of downlights can also be used to illuminate the social distancing safe zone markings.


Where lifts/elevators are in use, occupancy now has to be indicated through the use of adhesive disks on the floor. Typically, a standard passenger lift for up to 14 passengers will, in the new climate, now be limited to about four to six people.

This means 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.

Wherever there are floor social distancing indication stickers, including within lift cars, sensor-controlled lighting can again be effectively used to show users and occupants where to stand.

Just as with reception areas, unoccupied spaces could display green and as soon as the space is occupied, turn red. The ‘new normal’ encourages innovative ideas to use lighting and the existing lighting controls to address the needs brought about by the pandemic.


n South Africa the seating in meeting rooms and/or boardrooms now needs to be at least 1.5m apart. If the meeting room table or boardroom table is narrow, ‘sneeze screens’ need to be fitted, even though everyone will be wearing facemasks.

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

The guidance in South Africa is that personal space should be taped off on the floor to ensure 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 offices has to be 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.

These changes could, over time, of course transform how office spaces work and are used and, crucially, how they need to be lit to best effect. Changes to lighting could include making use of individual desk lights, as making changes to overhead installed lighting is difficult to rearrange.

It may be made more difficult because of other installed services within the ceiling space. Where Power over Ethernet lighting is installed, making changes to the layout is much easier as it is simple plug-and-play and does not require making changes to typical electrical low current reticulation.

It is also important to take careful note that the introduction of sneeze screens can impact the illuminance levels on the task areas. For example, we have modelled existing lighting designs after adding sneeze screens. The results were quite startling!

Despite being transparent, the illuminance levels were from 25% to almost 50% lower. In addition, glare and reflectivity of the material, whether glass or Perspex and especially over time, could cause user discomfort.


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

Casual coffee bar work areas now require sneeze screens between each workspace and seating must ensure social distancing.

Again, these changes may mean lighting professionals will need significantly to rethink how these spaces are lit in the future, and clients may in turn have different demands of the lighting in these communal areas.


As I’ve argued, the ‘new normal’ of work-ing may lead to us as lighting professionals needing to carry out a wholesale re-evaluation of how, where and why we light an office or workspace.
Whether this becomes a temporary or permanent revolution in office design and lighting is of course too early to say. But it is pretty clear, even if a viable vaccine is found, that Covid-19 is here to stay with us for at least a few years.

Moreover, this discussion isn’t taking into account the possible impact on lighting and lighting design of more systemic change, such as increased home working leading to reduced demand for, perhaps, big open-plan working spaces. Or perhaps it may be that where there is demand it will be for different forms and types of workplaces that may, again, need new, innovative and creative solutions in many areas, including lighting.

Whatever the future looks like, all lighting will, naturally, always have to be fully compliant with the applicable standards and regulations. For my part, my suspicion is one big change will be that task areas will be reduced. This will mean that task and ambient lighting may have to be relocated due to the changes in layout.

Whatever, the future holds for us, the one thing that is clear is that change is coming, whether we like it or not.

Philip Hammond B Illum Eng (Director of BHA Lighting Design & Consulting as well as director and principal of BHA School of Lighting in Cape Town, South Africa)


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