Star Trek at work
27 August 2020
Internal doors on the Starship Enterprise opened and closed without any direct contact. This was one of the special effects that impressed audiences when Star Trek debuted in the UK - seemingly light years back in 1969.
However, perhaps they symbolise the workplace changes needed in the post Covid-19 world. And hirers might be ideally placed to provide the necessary equipment and services.
The ‘new normal’
Such technology could be part of the ‘new normal’, a phrase which sounds like a modern journalistic cliché. However, I was surprised to find it in a fascinating - but sobering - article from 2003, published in The Lancet medical journal.
It was written by a senior medical officer who witnessed the SARS virus outbreak which struck Toronto and other parts of the world that year (there were four cases in the UK).
The author describes how patients and colleagues were struck down by the virus. Despite many being placed in intensive care, there were fatalities.
The virus behaved unusually, and the article argued that the world had to commit resources to prepare for future recurrences by creating a “new normal”.
Will we be ready?
It went on: “SARS must change us, the way we treat our planet, and how we deliver health care, forever. Will we be ready when it returns?” It added, “Without substantive changes to the way we manage the delivery of health care, both locally and on a worldwide scale, we risk the otherwise preventable annihilation of millions of people, either by this virus, or the next.”
This article was remarkably far-sighted. Like SARS, Covid-19 is caused by a coronavirus, but in the 17 intervening years, the world has not heeded the warnings. Now, however, the drive towards a new normal springs from the suggestion that a future pandemic outbreak is not a case of if, but when.
So, what might change? It depends on how serious the commitment really is.
It has been suggested that the offices of tomorrow will almost resemble hospitals, designed for minimal risk of contagion. Workers might encounter Star Trek-style doorways without handles or buttons, AV projectors operated by voice commands for boardroom presentations, and a host of equipment from coffee machines to lifts controlled by smartphone apps. Technology like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa makes this possible.
Big open-plan offices could be consigned to history. Workers might sit at physically distanced desks enclosed by protective screens with temperature sensors to detect fever symptoms. In new buildings, sinks and wash basins might have to be installed at reception areas and communal locations.
If you think this is all a bit far-fetched, just consider the current debate about how schools should provide a safe environment for children.
Architects might in future specify surface finishes that are easier to clean. Instead of porous materials like natural oiled wood, the preference might be stone, laminates and carpets with moisture resistant backings to withstand regular deep cleaning. Hirers could provide the equipment for the required cleaning, polishing and sanitising.
Such changes might shape tomorrow's workplaces, but what of today's? They can't be re-designed overnight, if at all. Manufacturers and hirers have already responded by making and supplying visitor control equipment, portable wash stations, sanitising machines and disinfectant sprays.
Star Trek’s technological innovations were uncannily accurate. Sci-fi ideas like tablet computers, flip communicators and voice-interface systems are now commonplace. Perhaps the new normal will combine the old with the new.
Time will tell
Or will this vision for a new normal fade, just like it did after SARS in 2003? Time will tell.
Nevertheless, perhaps Star Trek’s title sequence anticipated the changes: in adopting a new mindset, designers of workplaces and public spaces might have to boldly go where no man (or, indeed, woman) has gone before.
Whatever the future brings, hirers will doubtless be on hand to support them.