The global COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has raised a number of issues for businesses globally and, with the UK Government stating that the peak has passed and making plans for a phased return to the working environment, it’s never been more important for employers to consider the post-lockdown working landscape. Of course, the potential ramifications of the last few months are not yet fully known, and won’t be for some time, however what we do know is that, at least for the foreseeable future, the way we work and interact in the workplace faces major challenges.
“There will be a long-term adjustment to our location strategy [..] The notion of putting 7,000 people in the building may be a thing of the past.” – Jes Staley, CEO Barclays Bank
At Paradigm Office Interiors we have analysed the current situation in some detail to glean what we can on the impact that the legacy of COVID-19 will have on the workplace and in this article we aim to outline emerging trends and suggest solutions to minimise the impact of returning to work in the current environment with regard to adherence to the principles of social distancing and providing a safer workspace moving forward.
Remote Working v Office Based
Where practicable, a large number of businesses and organisations during the pandemic moved to home working for staff, utilising such elements as moving to ‘the cloud’ to allow for easy file sharing and collaboration, introducing real-time communication applications to stay connected such as Zoom and Skype, and creating virtual private networks.
Where this model has worked well, a number of companies may well pursue this working practice in the future in some form or another with some suitable parts of their workforce on either a full or part-time basis. So what are the implications here for the workplace?
A signal in a shift in thinking for businesses is evidenced by Barclays Bank who have had 70,000 staff worldwide working from home during the coronavirus lockdown measures. The interesting point here comes in a statement from CEO Jes Staley who, when asked about the impact of such measures going forward, replied that “There will be a long-term adjustment to our location strategy [..] The notion of putting 7,000 people in the building may be a thing of the past.”
The concept here is that, if businesses can function with a high-degree of efficacy via remote working, is it really necessary to incur the costs associated with large-scale office ‘real estate’ in the future? As TransparentBusiness Chief Transparency Officer Moe Vela points out: “This should be good news for a company because it will cost them less. Office space in places like New York City, Los Angles, Chicago, Sydney, Melbourne, Paris, and London are exorbitantly expensive, so this should be music to a company’s ears.”
Where remote working and digital collaboration can negate the need for an entire staff to be based in a single location, there are indeed many savings to be had but also a need for a rethinking of ‘traditional’ office space. With pre COVID-19 home working practices, remote staff usually were required to attend company premises on a periodic basis for meetings and to ‘touch base’, furthermore, ‘on the job’ training and certain staff meetings do not lend themselves to a digital means, for example, where there is a large working staff is it possible to have a flowing two-way Q&A with over 100 people on a split screen via Zoom?
“Remote working has become a necessity for the majority of workers, and it’s shown businesses – some of which might have been sceptical about allowing staff to work from home – that it is possible to maintain productivity and communication.” – Andrew Roughan, Managing Director Plexal
Additionally, employers need to consider that it is not appropriate, or feasible, for certain staff to work from home for anything much more than for a few weeks in the face of an emergency. Staff with homes lacking space for workstations, for example, wouldn’t be able to work indefinitely on coffee tables or with laptops on their knees and what about those with children, partners, grandparents etc occupying the same residence: would such households have sufficient tranquillity for someone to undertake their work duties for a full working day indefinitely? Furthermore, the mental welfare of staff has to be taken into consideration as working from home can lead to many problems from isolation and lack of interaction and a duty of care from an employer to identify such issues is much easier to undertake with staff in an office than it is when they are seldom seen.
Whilst there are no definitive answers as yet to some of the above issues, if we drill deeper into mass home working there are practical considerations: should an employer pay for a business broadband supply to the worker, should the employer provide a suitable workstation and undertake an assessment of its suitability under H&S regulations, should an employer provide a mobile phone or landline for home workers as opposed to redirecting calls to their personal mobiles, what are the liability insurance implications etc?
It’s fair to say that a lot of these issues, and many more that are as yet unforeseen, will come to light in the coming months but we’d urge businesses to start considering them now. However, if as expected, the trend is moving towards permanent remote working for groups of staff, this will also raise the following questions: what to do with existing workspace, and how to accommodate staff for whom it is not possible to remote work in, as safer working environment as is practicable.
The Future of the Office
The first conclusion that comes to mind if remote working is to be a driving force of business going forward is that many businesses can considerably down-size their premises as they will require much less office space from which to run their organisations. However, whilst premises downsizing is something many businesses may undertake, before any decisions are made businesses need to consider the working arrangements for non-home working staff. It’s not as simple as the equation: more remote working + emptier offices = smaller premises.
“I think we’ll see wider corridors and doorways, more partitions between departments, and a lot more staircases, [..] everything has been about breaking down barriers between teams, but I don’t think spaces will flow into each other so much any more.” – Arjun Kaicker, Zaha Hadid Architects
Social distancing is going to be with us for some time to come and the key to the post-lock down office is how to incorporate this principle into the working environment in a way that allows for the flow of conducting day-to-day business alongside providing a safe environment for the workforce and it is regarding this issue that space becomes an premium and to which this article will now turn its attention.
i/ Open to Closed Plan
In recent years there has been a major shift in office design from the closed-plan traditional approach – or booth approach – whereby it was a commonly held belief that office staff worked better free of distractions and staff interaction should be kept to a bare minimum with workers enclosed in either individual small offices or booths created by the use of office screens and partitioning. However, with open plan office space, as is most common today, workers sit in large spaces containing many staff in close proximity to each other.
Obviously, open plan offices aren’t commensurate with the principles of social distancing which is based on principles of minimal human contact and preserving a safe ‘bubble’ of space around people to reduce the risk of person-to-person transmission of the virus via touch or distributed through the air to the immediate vicinity via coughs and sneezes.
The ethos now needs to be to combine the benefits of both approaches to office planning so that best practices around non-transmission can be adhered to along with the ability for employers to utilise their available building structure without the need for the prohibitive costs of completely rebuilding or relocating premises.
ii/ Screens & Spacing
With space planning to permit more distance between employees and the use of protective office screening (floor-standing screens, office furniture, desk screens and low-level partitioning) it should be possible to redesign an open plan office to be somewhat of a hybrid of the closed and open model.
In addition, where possible staff should be operating at a greater distance from their colleagues than previously in a principle called the ‘size feet office’ whereby a minimum distance between staff of 6 feet must be maintained and incorporated into space planning. Furthermore, standards of office furniture are also being looked at. As Arjun Kaicker of Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) “Office desks have shrunk over the years, from 1.8-metre to 1.6-metre, to now 1.4-metre and less, but I think we’ll see a reversal of that, as people won’t want to sit so close together”.
iii/ Air Flow
Allowing fresh air into offices where possible should also be a priority. Whilst it’s not possible for every office to have an array of windows to open, good ventilation is a key to preventing the spread of COVID-19 and where offices operate as ‘sealed units’ from the outside world, office climate control systems should be considered to maintain a constant flow of fresh, clean air circulating throughout the premises.
iv/ Cleaning & Hygiene
Simple things such as the addition of hand sanitizer dispensers for staff will help reduce the risk of contamination in the workplace and a stringent regime of regular cleansing of office furniture is essential.
Innovative approaches are already being put in place by many businesses such as by Cushman & Wakefield’s whereby employees are asked to grab a paper placemat for their desk. At the end of the day, the paper is thrown away, which could help mitigate COVID-19 spreading on surfaces.
v/ Signage & Traffic Flow
As many of us have seen in recent weeks in supermarkets, a lot of additional controls are in place to manage the flow of customers and ensure the principles of social distancing are maintained via the use of markers showing where each customer should stand in a queue to one-way flow around aisles etc.
Such principles can be, and most likely will be, incorporated into the working environment over the coming months with a heavy reliance on signage to indicate what measures are in force and what actions staff members need to take to abide by them. With the underlying premise being that close proximity to others should be kept to a bare minimum we would expect to see such measure as limits on lift occupancy, premises with multiple staircase identifying certain ones for up and others for down, one-way flow though corridors etc.
vi/ Communal Resources
With transmission via touch being a chief consideration, one of the principles of open plan offices is the pooling/sharing of physical resources. This comes in many forms from hot desking, sharing telephones and use of photocopiers to sharing pens and bins.
In the ‘new’ office, these practices should be kept to a bare minimum. Whilst each member of staff having their own photocopier might be unfeasible – providing cleaning gel and wipes for cleaning surfaces after use isn’t. The minutiae of office furniture needs to be addressed too – for example, flip-top bins should be removed and replace by pedal bins to avoid the need for communal touching of lids, for example.
In conclusion, the impact of COVID-19 is to be far reaching and with us for some time and plans need to be put in place now to ensure that those who return to work in an office environment are not only met by an environment that meets Government advice but that, as far as is reasonably practicable, ensures their welfare going forward. If you wish to discuss how your office space can be adapted to meet this challenge, please contact us on 01675 437 547 and we will be glad to talk you through what can be done.