Article
The COVID-19 pandemic is upending work life for just about all of us. For many, this has meant shifting from an employer’s open-plan office space to a kitchen or dining room table at home for the last few months. But now, as states and cities are beginning to allow office buildings to reopen, it’s up to employers to make some changes. Power delivery is just one of the many necessities that will need to be rethought in these office redesigns.

Power Delivery and Office Layouts: The Return of the Cube Farm?

Chuck Ross
The COVID-19 pandemic is upending work life for just about all of us. For many, this has meant shifting from an employer’s open-plan office space to a kitchen or dining room table at home for the last few months. But now, as states and cities are beginning to allow office buildings to reopen, it’s up to employers to make some changes. Power delivery is just one of the many necessities that will need to be rethought in these office redesigns.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has developed guidelines for how office space should be designed to minimize the risk of disease transmission. These new recommendations are forcing employers to redesign the open-office plans that have ruled corporate America for the last two decades or so. While office workers have gotten used to working side-by-side and across from each other, in running lines of worktables, the CDC now is calling for separation and physical barriers between workspaces. In other words, the much-maligned cubicle could be back.

I worked for years in what we used to call “cube farms,” during my time as a trade magazine writer and editor. I still remember the excitement when one employer upgraded its cubicles – known in the design trade as “systems furniture.” The big bonus – we got closets, and when you opened the closet doors all the way, they blocked the entrance to the cube, providing an illusory sense of privacy. The other nifty thing about those cubicles was the way power outlets were built into the surface of the desktop, so we didn’t have to scramble around on the floor to plug in our then-newfangled laptops. And, since the only available coffee came out of a machine, many of us also had to worry about powering our personal-sized coffee makers, as well.

During the early 2000s, I shifted to a tech consulting job with all the Dotcom features – free Starbucks coffee, free goodies in the kitchen, a foosball table, and lines of worktables on wheels, with not a cubicle wall in sight. Wall- and floor-mounted raceway was the power-delivery method of choice in these settings.

While the new CDC guidelines don’t openly suggest a return to cubicles, what they do recommend sure sounds a lot like an old-school cube farm. For example, the American Industrial Hygiene Association suggests these actions in support of the CDC guidance:

  • Review floorplans … to preserve recommended physical distancing.
  • Reconfigure workstations so that employees do not face each other, or establish partitions if facing each other cannot be avoided.

So, it’s possible employers could begin to reconsider those open-office designs that have enabled them to fit more workers into expensive commercial real estate, in favor of the transmission-reducing barriers cubicles create. Should that happen, power delivery will yet again become a vital consideration in office design. Fortunately, electrical manufacturers have maintained their systems furniture product lines, so connecting electronics won’t be a problem. And, since centralized kitchens now are falling out of favor, workers could find themselves in need of a way to brew their own coffee, as well.
Photo courtesy of Hubbell
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