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What does the return to work look like for UK flexible offices?

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22/05/2020

As we approach our 10th week of lockdown, life as we once knew it is slowly returning to a new normal with cafes tentatively offering takeaway options and offices dusting down desks as companies prepare for a staggered return to work.

By Cal Lee, global head of Workthere

Although no one knows how long it will take for things to return to normal, and whether it might just be the case that we learn to adapt to the new normal in which we find ourselves, there is certainly a chance for us to prepare ourselves for the next step.

Flexible office providers and landlords have been busying themselves behind the scenes to ensure that when they start welcoming their customers back to the office, the process is as smooth as possible. Here are just a few things we think you should look out for as that moment gets ever closer.

How does returning to work in a flexible office compare to a traditional office?

In a traditional office, your leadership and HR and Health & Safety are in charge of your demised area, and then the must abide to the building rules, most likely developed by the landlord and their managing agent. It is likely that going back to a serviced office you will have less control, and instead follow the guidelines of your operator. Most however are fairly similar and all include a wide variety of measures to make the workplace as safe as possible during this time.

For example a serviced operator will manage the cleaning of your office as well as the communal areas, they will dictate what their staff wear as PPE, how many people can enter a lift, which way you walk around communal spaces, how you access and use meeting rooms. Each provider has written their own return to work guide, which includes detail on the measures they have each put in place, and we recommend any clients considering their return read through the guide of their respective operator and make sure they are comfortable with those measures being put in place.

In the longer term, we may also see both conventional and flexible occupiers re-evaluate their space requirements to factor in that there won’t be as many staff present at the same time due to rotational measures in place. 

Will the return to work measures implemented in flexible offices mean they will lose some of the focus on collaboration and community? How do we keep people engaged?

In line with government guidelines, collaboration can still happen, it must just happen 2 metres apart to abide with social distancing rules. The main objective for the design of the space in the medium term will be de-densify and avoid any congestion within shared spaces and the typically busy areas of the office.

Nevertheless, we expect that people will still be able to make use meeting rooms and break-out facilities, just with fewer people. In the medium term, any such collaboration will be limited to a smaller group of people.

Some providers are looking to keep up the community engagement activities such as yoga classes and quizzes albeit virtually for the time being. We can also expect to see an increase in occupier engagement apps to keep people in the know.

Will we see a rise in private desk over coworking as a result of Covid-19?

Some providers, for example The Office Group, have stopped selling their co-working and lounge memberships in order to provide priority to their existing members on use of shared spaces and to make it safer in the medium term. We expect co-working demand will be slow to return and most will use private offices. This has been the case in Asia, where the shared spaces remain very quiet, whilst the offices are back to capacity, but doors closed, whereas before they might’ve been open.

How will providers manage anyone potentially passing on Covid-19 unknowingly?

This is something that not just flexible providers will have to worry about; it will be a common issue for conventional offices and any kind of shared space. Nevertheless, there are simple steps that are being taken to avoid this:

  1. Symptoms: If anyone entering the building is showing symptoms commonly associated with COVID-19, it is recommended they stay at home and away from the office
  2. Access: Initially, people using the space will be advised to avoid using public transport to travel to and from the office if at all possible. Many providers are offering extra parking and bike storage to help solve this. Once in the building, lifts will be used on a one person in, one person out basis with contactless access implemented where possible. It might even be the case that a one way system is put into place
  3. Keeping clean: Sanitiser stations will be provided on entrance and across floors and customers will be asked to wear a protective mask when travelling to the building and moving around in public spaces.
  4. Champions: LABS, for example, is actively encouraging their members to nominate a COVID-19 champion to keep abreast of government updates and maintain the office space, as well as adapt the teams commuting and working hours.

Can we expect to see design and technology changes implemented?

In a word, yes. Changes to the way in which buildings are designed and how technology is factored into this, is expected to be a huge theme going forwards. Expect to see one way systems, increased signage and even desk dividers to keep people distanced. In terms of technology, it is likely that members can expect all meeting rooms to be set up with enhanced video conferencing capabilities to assist with more Zoom meetings, as well as tracking apps to ensure people are safe to access the building.

Could we see flexible offices being used over longer time periods during the day so earlier in the morning and later in the evening as well as more frequently at weekends as a result of businesses and individuals looking to stagger their working time?

Most flexible offices provide 24/7 access as it is, however their receptions are usually only manned from 8.30 to 5.30pm. Already we’re seeing providers extend their reception hours, with one of the reasons being allowing their own staff to commute at times outside of rush-hour and therefore reduce risk.

While there are a lot of changes to be expected upon the return to the office, there is very much a sense of everyone being in the same boat. Flexible offices, like conventional ones, will of course look slightly different but with the added bonus of attracting flexible, like-minded people it might be that we are able to weather the storm and adapt to a new kind of normal.