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The Remarkable Return of the Office

22 May 2020

FUTURE Designs held our 4th forum in our 8th week of lockdown and we are starting to see at least a glimmer of hope, but what we are definitely seeing is a realisation to the way our lives will change and adapt and a real positive acceptance and attitude to the challenge we face on rebuilding how we do things in the future. This is an opportunity for us to create and develop a new future within the workplace.

We are discussing how and when we return to work and in what capacity. There is no doubt that the WFH movement will continue for a large majority of us for a long time, potentially even now becomes the standard for many. However, what we cannot do is allow the world to slow down and so a balanced approach must be adopted.

Clients are looking for advisers to be visible and reactive so we must instil confidence amidst the invisible as well. It is a time of reflection and innovation. Office layout from reception to board room are in need of adaptation and redesign. Furniture layouts and building plans are being adapted. It is time to find solutions and rethink projects, re-programme specific tasks, innovate how we can be virtually available if and where possible. The one common goal is to create a safe working environment for all to carry on effectively with our work.

Working from home will never be a long term, or the preferred, solution for most, but currently how do we get to our 13th floor office in the lift, how do we use our toilets, how do we have a coffee and what happens if the fire alarm goes off? Agile working and hot desking will be gone for the foreseeable future with the complexities of the simplest of working tools such as keyboards, chairs and screens needing cleaning constantly, but we must also look past COVID 19 and plan for buildings a year on from this point.

With many people believing they are effective from home and having that difficult conversation between employee and employer, do property portfolios carry out a reassessment? Do people take another floor of the building to accommodate all of their staff safely, a nice thought but the reality is a phased return of some sort is more likely. Compromise and common sense will hopefully prevail.

Cash flow is key, but we need to be careful not to furlough too many people and overload others, consistency and continuality of project work is required to ensure the quality and speed is maintained. With the reduced capacity and slow down, project time lines will be prolonged but will fees be renegotiated or will they be squeezed? Tenants and clients are in a strong position to renegotiate, remembering back to the 1990’s when landlords were offering 3 year leases for rates only. There is a real nervousness amongst landlords, will people hold off for a better deal, how does the construction industry predict this future pipeline?

Adaptive Working

We are now well into the WFH movement and people are adapting. Zoom and Teams are the new Facebook and WhatsApp. Constant visual communication to all is essential, but we must remember not every one has the same WFH circumstances. Whether you are a working couple with young children or a graduate in a house share, we all have our issues and the fact is the more senior people the more likely they are to have a more appropriate set-up to adapt to this.

The simple ergonomics of the home versus the office, how do we print A1 drawings and what chair do we sit in, are we in our home office, our kitchen or our bedroom? What can we do to ensure the future leaders are being trained well, coached and having that company culture that brings them through the business ranks. People need to create a routine, everyone needs to understands their responsibilities. And employers need to trust that they are working as effectively as they can be. The days of “not at your desk, not at work” will change and people can no longer be “out of sight, out of mind.”

So how do we return to work?

We all need to respect personal space, be mindful and aware and keep in line with the rules. Rethinking strategies and occupancy flows, agreeing a rota of who will come in and when, if at all? If you live locally then why not use the office? But the one thing out of all our control is the public transport, and this could be the biggest blocker for the return of those not living in Zones 1-3. So it seems likely that there will be a shift and the office will work at a certain percentage of their full capacity until the end of the year at least. We are sure a lot of people won’t miss the commute every day but another certainty is that they will miss the interaction. Creative minds thrive on the office vibe and buzz, being able to exchange ideas or even having someone to blow off some steam with, we cannot lose this culture.

So although working from home may continue to be the way forward currently for some of us, the office will always be the heart of the business.

The participants were:

David Clements – Chief Executive – FUTURE Designs

Mark Russell – Sales Specification Director – FUTURE Designs

Richard Newton – Commercial Director – Engineroom

Patricia Bessey – Director – Engineroom

Nicola Tomkins – Senior Design Manager – Overbury

Jaynesh Patel – Mechanical Engineer – WSP

Fabiana Nery Pardhanani – Associate Director / Head of Lighting – chapmanbdsp

Mark Mitchell – Regional Director – AECOM