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Capsule offices

Capsule offices
CAPSULE HOTEL Anshin Oyado in Nagoya, Japan

Capsule hotels are nothing new in densely populated urban areas like Tokyo. Low-cost but efficient capsule hotels offered sufficient lodging particularly for on-the-go customers who required no more than a bed for the night and a bath the next day. And with real estate costs high, capsule hotels were economical and practical travel solutions.

The same logic and system can apply to office spaces now, given the pandemic that started in 2020. Almost two years into this public health emergency, and most office spaces continue to remain only partly occupied, anyway. For businesses that haven’t taken advantage of the situation by cutting down on space, and thus reducing overhead cost, it is not too late.

The overall objective is to work better, and maintain if not boost workers’ wellness, efficiency, and productivity. This is despite periodic lockdowns, reduced capacities, and fluctuating number of COVID cases. Also for consideration are limitations on personal interactions, mobility and transportation, business travel, and social gatherings.

In this line, I believe “capsule” offices are worth pursuing. Imagine a cockpit, where all controls are within the pilot’s reach. Many pilots put into their hands the lives of hundreds if not thousands as they make life-or-death decisions in cockpits no bigger than two square meters. They work long hours in small spaces, where they make decisions that can save or lose lives.

As early as December 2019, just a few months before the pandemic hit full-blown proportions in March 2020, “capsule” offices were already introduced in Tokyo, for use of train commuters. These “cubes,” similar but bigger than the telephone booths of old, were put up by East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) for passengers who wanted to work in between train rides.

The enclosures — measuring 1.2 square meters each — were all equipped with a seat, desk, and power sockets. They were also soundproof, and, presumably, well-ventilated. The work booths were installed in JR East’s Tokyo, Shinjuku, and Shinagawa stations, and targeted commuters who wanted to work quickly and privately while commuting between places.

Customers must reserve the booths ahead of time, and unlock them via Quick Response codes issued by JR East. The capsules were seen as a good alternative to working in public spaces that are noisy and crowded. For local use, such booths should be equipped with air filters, and must be sanitized after every use, making them COVID-safe for users.

When the office capsules were first introduced in late 2019, they could be used by JR East commuters for free for up to 30 minutes. I am uncertain whether they are now used for a fee, and whether more booths have been installed since. But in early 2020, Mitsubishi Estate had targeted to install 1,000 similar booths called “Telecube” by 2023.

Mitsubishi’s Telecubes would be made by office furniture maker Okamura Corp. along with video-conferencing software vendor V-Cube, Inc., and Telecube, Inc. Telecube was to be a chargeable service that costs ¥250 for 15 minutes, while corporate subscribers could pay a monthly rate for a set number of hours. Telecube was working on the assumption that telecommuting could replace or support onsite work and could help reduce office and train congestion. Little did Mitsubishi realize at the time that the global pandemic would happen.

In late 2020, Japanese capsule hotel chain Anshin Oyado Premier in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood had already repurposed an entire floor of its sleeping compartments into rental workspace area. The chain converted capsule hotel sleeping slots into double-high office spaces with a chair, desk, power outlets (standard and USB), and free Wi-Fi. Users could also borrow wireless mics, wireless keyboards, headsets, smartphone chargers, and printers. Each capsule has interior lighting and an air purifier.

The capsule service also includes a bar with complimentary unlimited soft drinks at the facility’s third floor, and a convenience store that sells snacks and light fare. There is also a Japanese-style bath for male customers. Anshin Oyado charges ¥500 for one-hour work capsule rental. Two hours cost ¥1,000, while whole day rental from 9 a.m. to midnight was ¥3,000.

I believe now is the time for local developers to leverage on the office cube concept and consider something similar for the office environment. Office dividers and open cubicles can be replaced by enclosed booths or “cubes” that will not require a user to keep a mask on while in the office. The work cube can be made efficient, well-equipped, and well-ventilated, while allowing offices to reduce real estate space and cost.

Moreover, running a series of booths alongside each other provides workers with safe personal working space — at least during the time they are in the booth — while effective soundproofing allows them to converse and hold meetings without masks or headsets. Cubes can be equipped with auxiliaries and peripherals that will allow users to simply just plug in and log on.

Recirculating air vents with HEPA filters can be installed. The same vents can be used to “sanitize” the booths at the end of the day and make them ready for users the next working day. Older structures can be repurposed as work sites by simply installing office cubes in suitable areas, very much like trucking portable toilets into concert and events venues.

As an option, a series of three “office cube” units can be installed right beside a portable toilet to service the occupants of the three cubes. A set of four — three office cubes and one portable toilet — can be made modular, and supplied as plug-and-play units. These can allow real estate developers the ease of reconfiguring and repurposing unused residential or commercial spaces into office spaces.

The idea of working in a “box” can be intimidating. But just as pilots get used to cockpits, workers in search of comfortable but safe working environments can eventually get used to working in enclosed personal booths or cubes. In fact, affordable cubes can also be used in schools and other learning environments.

Personalized cubes can even be installed in suitable homes for work-from-home and school-from-home arrangements. This allows users the comfort and privacy of a personal workspace, even if they have to be right next to each other. Yes, the idea of having cubes in the house can be daunting. However, aesthetics and convenience will have to give way to function and safety as we deal with this pandemic.

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council

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