By: Allan Wood, Managing Director, Optima Major Works
There’s no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the rules of modern office design. Everyone, from business owners and commercial operators to architects and fit-out specialists, is having to reappraise how they plan and specify for new requirements driven by seismic socio-economic events.
One of the most significant challenges companies will inevitably face is enticing their employees back into the city centre office. Over the last 18 months, a large proportion of the workforce has been working at home, five days a week, and become accustomed to it. What was once the exception has now become the norm.
Companies needs to respond accordingly, laying the grounds for a safe return to an office which will, crucially, be relevant to the evolving needs of its users whilst also functioning as a productive, collaborative arena in which to do business.
As a leading manufacturer and installer of aluminium-framed glass partitioning systems, we engage with organisations across UK business and industry on a daily basis, so we know it’s a topic at the top of the agenda for many owners and operators. We also know it can present a daunting prospect.
To help cut through the uncertainty and provide assurance, we recently hosted a roundtable, drilling down into the topic to define an immediate course of action for business owners, regardless of size or location. We sought to find out what needs to be done in order to make the workspace relevant in the post-COVID world, we have engaged with the commercial architectural and fit-out community.
Particularly, we focused on current workforce attitudes, and how clever and carefully planned office design can deliver a balance of employees’ and their employers’ needs.
Here, we offer suggestions, drawn from the discussion, which we think should be primary considerations when thinking about getting workforces back into workspaces.
Planning an individual approach
We need to be acutely aware that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this. Each and every business has its own specific requirements, which will be dictated by size of workforce and how much personnel is needed in the office at any one time. For example, a small business previously in a co-working space will have totally different challenges to a large conglomerate on multiple floors of a skyscraper. As business owners, we need to take an individual approach, rather than try to template, based on the experience of others.
It all starts with an honest audit and impact assessment, reviewing how the space needs to function and how this can be best delivered in the post-COVID set-up. We need to ask questions like: Where can we find flexibility? Can we rotate staff? How do we protect workers without impacting productivity, creativity and collaboration?
From there we can develop plans and strategies to ensure we’re only investing in the necessities. This is particularly important in a time where many companies, regardless of size, will not have much spare capital available.
The case for space
COVID has had the effect of accelerating a change of attitude towards office layout which was already starting to gather momentum just before lockdown was introduced.
Gradually, businesses were starting to move away from the static, fixed-desk culture, with as many people as possible crammed into every inch of available space. The rise of co-working spaces was a catalyst, which has led many employees to demand a more comfortable, flexible and guaranteed-safe workspace before they return. For some job-seekers, it’s now a central condition for applying.
It will come as no surprise then that we’ve seen a massive increase in the number of briefs which include a far greater level of open plan, collaborative and break-out spaces than ever before.
The returning workforce, which has become used to a greater degree of flexibility from 18 months at home, wants an environment providing a better balance between work, rest and play. Where the 2010s saw our professional lives seep into the personal, in the 2020s the opposite is true.
Specifying for success
It’s a delicate balance to strike, and clever office design by a great fit-out professional will meet both employee and employer needs.
This professional ingenuity can be enhanced by the portfolio of highly-sophisticated fixtures, fittings and finishes available for contemporary commercial office spaces. It’s a constantly evolving sector, being driven by the specifier to find those key solutions their clients need to get back to work.
For example, we recently responded to calls from a number of design partners requiring plug-and-play solutions which could be instantly deployed to hasten the office return, whilst ensuring H&S guidelines were followed to the letter. This led to the increased deployment of our Adaptable Meeting Room (AMR), modular, freestanding and AV-capable meeting space.
Further, when physical solutions like this are supported with digital tools, such as app-supported desk management systems, you have a very powerful proposition which can deliver safety and comfort whilst driving workforce productivity, achieving maximum value from the office space.
The empathetic employer
Adopting an empathetic approach to this challenge is vital. It’s no longer acceptable to regard the office space in terms of a homogenous, faceless collection of workers, a consciousness of employees as individuals must be at the heart of the decision. We need to design working environments at once tailored to their needs, but also appropriate for the operation of our businesses.
So, it’s about putting a plan in place as early as possible, then evolving the company culture, in line with changing staff priorities and expectations, to embrace the new approach and, finally, commissioning one of this country’s many talented fit-out professionals to help realise the revitalised, post-pandemic workspace.
At the end of the day, our workers will thank us for it and, I believe, work all the harder to prove the new levels of confidence we have put in them, communicated through an office which meets their needs better than ever before.