Monday, 13 July 2020 14:15

The Post-COVID-19 Workplace

    Tony Antoniou, Managing Director at London-based workplace design studio Rainbow, paints a picture of how our office spaces could look in the near future and discusses how, through design, we need to adapt to newfound workplace needs and boost the wellbeing and safety of employees following the coronavirus pandemic.

    2020 is Rainbow’s 30th year of trading. We were planning a great big summer party to celebrate, and all of us were excited and looking forward to it. How things have changed in such a short space of time.

    Over our 30 years of trading, we have seen many recessions and many historical events. Three of these; in particular, had a big impact on the economy – the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings and the near-collapse of the banking system in 2008.

    Most companies got through these and returned to normality; some, including Rainbow, actually grew during these periods.

    However, the COVID-19 lockdown is completely different. The impact on the economy was immediate, severe and all-encompassing. No-one escaped from it, and it was felt by everyone in every age group, from every background, by every business in every industry and any size of company.

    Not only that, but it will continue to be felt for many more years in terms of the debt repayment but also in the way people will work.

    There are; of course, immediate reactions and considerations that need to take place in order for people to get back to work safely and we are helping companies achieve this through various means, such as protective screening, advice on which desks should and shouldn’t be utilised, cleaning and wellbeing stations, sanitiser dispensers and help planning larger corridors and one-way movement.

    Personally, for the immediate concerns, I believe the simplest and probably the best way of achieving social distancing, is to limit the amount of people who use the office by dividing them into shift teams until it is safe for everyone to return. This does depend on how long it will be before it is safe to return, but it is very effective.

    Long-term changes

    The interesting changes to the workplace though will be the long-term changes, and I am both confident and excited that these will be positive changes.

    Lessons will have been learned from the lockdown, and I really hope that companies and individuals take all the positives they can from this experience and find a way to utilise these in the new post-COVID-19 workplace.

    Working from home has been one of the major changes for most companies. It has been talked about for many years, and some companies have implemented work-from-home schemes, but these have been few and far between.

    The COVID-19 lockdown has forced everyone’s hand. The major concern has not been the technology – which has been around for quite a few years now – the concern has always been trust.

    Will staff actually work from home? Will they work full days? If you call them and they don’t answer, are they in the garden? Down the shops? The fact is, most people are trustworthy and certainly, if you look after your people, show them respect, value their opinions, listen to their ideas and trust them, you will be rewarded because if working from home suits them, then you are helping them and they will indeed put in the hours and often actually work harder and longer than if you made them commute into the office just so you can see them sitting at their desk.

    People should be judged on their output, not their input and providing they complete their tasks and the work they need to, does it matter when and where they work from?

    Going forward, there will be a massive uptake on home working because not only can it work and has been proven these last few months, but most people have really enjoyed the time they have spent with their families. It’s been a revelation seeing their spouses, partners and their children so much; they have really enjoyed it, and home working means that can still happen. Instead of spending two hours commuting, they can spend that time with their family on home-working days.

    The thing is, for most people, it will only be for a day or two a week, not full-time. People are social animals, and they need and enjoy company. Yes, the lockdown has shown it can work but; more importantly, it has made so many people realise how much they enjoy being at work too. No-one likes the commute, but it is worth it to meet with your colleagues, to have the ‘office banter’, to get out of the house for a while and; of course, the social side as well. The after-work drinks, lunchtime at the park and the Monday morning discussion finding out what everyone got up to at the weekend. This is where the office wins hands down, and it cannot be replicated through a screen.

    The commute is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome because right now, no-one wants to be on public transport at rush hour. The office will need to accommodate this. It will need to be open earlier for the people wanting to get in before the rush and close much later for the people who started later to avoid it. This is something that will continue after the lockdown has been lifted too.

    Those two points mean that going forward, the workplace will need to have much more social space built into its design. Nicer kitchen areas, eating spaces, soft seating areas, where people can meet, eat, drink coffee and chat, plus making use of outdoor spaces that they may have.

    These spaces will be so important, especially if some people are having their lunch while others who started later are just having their first coffee of the day.

    Collaboration spaces for bouncing ideas off of each other, team meetings and face-to-face group meetings will be much more appreciated and important moving forward, so these need to be increased – yes, it will not happen immediately but, this is a long-term view.

    With people working from home both inside and outside the organisation, there will be many more video conference calls taking place, and the office needs to be adapted to accommodate these. You don’t want people making these calls at their desk; they need dedicated spaces where the calls can be made and received to ensure everyone is heard and not continually interrupted. These should include small one-to-one calls and; of course, group calls too, as both will be needed.

    Wellbeing has really been brought to the forefront of people’s minds over the past few months, and this is brilliant news. Not only for their physical health, but also their mental wellbeing. It’s almost ironic that it has taken a pandemic for people to see how important everyone’s health is.

    If someone is feeling down; however, it’s much easier to notice when face-to-face rather than through a screen, which is another reason why the workplace is so important. Companies must latch onto this and consider the wellbeing of their people – both physical and mental. They need to design spaces into the workplace where their people can look after their physical and mental health.

    At Rainbow, I introduced our wellbeing consultant a few months ago because I know that having a person that people can talk to who is completely independent of family and work colleagues could make all the difference to someone in need, and I believe all organisations – large or small – should implement this into their company. It just makes sense and shows you care.

    If everyone in a company works from home one day a week, that is a 20% reduction in the occupancy of a workplace. Believe it or not, average occupancy of an office prior to the lockdown was between 50 to 70% anyway, so this additional space means companies can reduce the size of their office going forward and with the money they save, and the space they create, even after reducing the size of their office, they should design a workplace that incorporates all the areas I have mentioned, from a great kitchen space, eating areas, collaboration spaces, video conference areas for individuals and groups, wellbeing rooms and fitness studios, plus additional areas they may currently be lacking but should have, such as concentration spaces, informal meeting areas and presentation spaces.

    All this can be achieved and, for most organisations, it can be achieved without even moving once a proper home-working programme is implemented.

    There is now a great opportunity to create some fantastic workspaces for your people, where they have the right environment to complete every task they need to throughout the day. Where they can start and end when it suits them, where they can socialise with their colleagues, where they can look after their wellbeing and; ultimately, a space they really like to be in.

    Always remember, and there is lots of data to back this up, the companies who look after their people are the companies that are successful.

    I am extremely optimistic and excited about the future of the workplace.

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