COVID-19: What happens when offices reopen?

3 min read

Globally, we are in unprecedented times, as countries across the world respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.

For a large number of businesses, this has led to the closure of offices and workplaces as employees adapt to working from home. For how long, no one currently knows.

Across the UK, parts of Europe and the US, the lockdowns in place are fast approaching the first month marker, and as China’s recovery has shown us, there is potential for this to continue for some time.

This extended period of working from home, or not working at all, has created new routines for many of us. Time spent commuting has given way to yoga practice, workouts and morning walks. Distractions come not from colleagues, but from children, pets and the postman.

Working remotely has forced an increase in the adoption of technology to support collaborative working and continued communication. However, embracing video conferencing is beginning to create a shift in attitude – CEOs will be considering if they need to retain as much real estate as before, asking ‘if we can do our jobs from home right now, do we need to be in the office as much in the future?’  

Before the coronavirus pandemic, remote working had long been a hot topic. Adoption across most industries, tech firms exempt, had been slow with bustling offices still the first choice for many companies.

However, in light of recent circumstances, many businesses immediately accelerated their plans to increase remote working in order to maintain business continuity.  

With IT support systems and new infrastructure now in place, could this lead to an uptake in flexible working? And as offices reopen, will the change in working habits lead to a change in workplace design?

Whatever the future holds, companies must take stock now of their existing workplace and consider the opportunities for both efficiencies and employee experience in both the short and long term.

A phased return

The return to the office should be carried out in waves. Steps will need to be taken to ensure that an influx of people into one shared space doesn’t put public health and safety at risk.

High priority teams should be the first to be reintroduced to the workplace. Consideration must be given to the stages at which business and public services will begin operating.

It’s important to stress that changes to the workplace should not be made in haste. Once offices reopen, teams will need a period of time to assess how any changes to working patterns may impact productivity, and allow for employees to adjust to new routines.

The offer of the office

Once offices begin to reopen, teams will be looking to maintain, or regain productivity and engagement levels. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, balancing the needs of employees was a key focus for businesses - the challenge many face is creating a workplace that employees want to come to, a workplace that can offer them more than working from home can.

One clear benefit to a shared workspace is the increased opportunity for collaboration. Face-to-face meetings and chance encounters with colleagues can only happen in a shared workspace, often inspiring discussion and creativity. However, for some, the added disruption of noisy colleagues and lack of permanent desk space is a hindrance to their working day.

Changes to design should be considered. Mimicking the experience of working at home will help to facilitate the transition back into the workplace as well as capitalising on the benefits that home working offer – such as ‘quiet zones’ and informal areas for colleagues to catch up without disturbing others.

Seeking efficiencies in the workplace

As businesses look to recoup lost profits from the coronavirus pandemic, and business leaders question the need for so many employees occupying desk space, they would be wise to use this opportunity to assess the workplace and to understand where efficiencies can be made. This might see a change in workplace design, to encourage productivity and cost savings across the board, or a change to services and utilities.

As employees settle back into the workplace, data and sensor technology is the most effective way to monitor how employees have adapted their working day. Capturing data that outlines the day-to-day use of spaces and facilities will help businesses identify the needs of employees, and how behaviours may change following the reopening of offices.

Direct communication with employees is key to understanding their individual needs. Teams need to be supported and engaged during the process of reopening workplaces. Employee surveys are a useful tool here, to capture the needs and expectations of individuals, and give insight into engagement and wellbeing, as well as productivity.

The key to making a successful transition back is to understand what your workforce wants in the future, before making any decisions about how your office space and workplace experience can better support, what is expected to be, very different needs and expectations to just a few weeks ago.