Business

Business focus: As staff return to offices, how different do workplaces look since lockdown started?

The Evening Standard is this month running a number of features on the London office market. This week Joanna Bourke looks at some immediate changes in buildings that people returning to offices might observe…

London feels busier this month. The roads look busier. The tube looks busier. Offices (some) look (slightly) busier. September marks not only kids returning to school, but also many workers entering HQs for the first time since March when the lockdown started.

A number of firms have told the Standard they are planning to have more employees back into offices from this month. For those returning to City and West End desks this week, the office is likely to look and feel very different.

Landlords, building managers and occupiers have been discussing ways to make workplaces Covid-secure, and this will be open to different interpretations.

Here are some of the ways offices may appear different compared to six months earlier:

Masks

The government has signalled it does not intend to make face coverings a requirement in offices. However, various rules will be in place for different buildings.

For example, employers might ask staff to wear masks in communal areas, such as entering a property and on a escalator, but they won’t expect people to wear them while typing at their desks.

Clean

One would hope the space they worked in was clean prior to the coronavirus outbreak, but if it wasn’t that will have now changed. As Andrew Phipps, head of EMEA business development at Cushman & Wakefield puts it: “the office will look cleaner than it ever has.” He points to hand sanitizer being around, phone wipes, and desk cleaning.

Nicola Gillen, a partner at Cushman & Wakefield and one of the firm’s workplace experts, adds: “Cleaning regimes have been stepped up considerably with cleaners, who used to be back of house and work at night, now welcomed front of house and regularly seen cleaning throughout the working day.”

Layout changes

Physical layouts may look very different in some buildings. Expect to see more spaces between desks in some offices, and certain communal seating not currently in use.

You may also spot new additions now or in the near future at some sites. Maarten Jamin, a chief design officer at serviced office provider IWG, is founder of design company ‘better space; better people’ which has helped come up with changes at IWG’s Spaces brand. New Spaces sites in London to be opened later this year are set to have touch-free vending machines for refreshments and office supplies. They are operated via an app.

Less crowds

Various businesses have said they will look at rotas to ensure there are not too many people in a office at one time, making it easier for social distancing to work.

Beth Hampson, commercial director at flexible workspace provider The Argyll Club, says some people are worried about how they’ll get into town safely, so are adjusting the times they commute to avoid rush hour or are looking into alternative modes of transport. Hampson says: “We’ve seen an 80% increase in businesses seeking bike storage and showers at their offices, so teams can more easily cycle to work.” The usual rush of people into a building each morning may be much quieter, with people arriving and leaving at less conventional office hours.

Andrew Barnes, head of central London tenant representation at property agent JLL, says: “There are serious changes that have been implemented in many offices including segregated teams in the office at different times, limitations on access to meeting rooms, limited access to the entire building and reduced food and refreshment provision.”

The first phase of changes

There are still numerous companies that have a large chunk of their employees working from home, and plan to keep that model in place for the immediate future, while some bosses have told staff to keep doing their jobs remotely until at least next year.

For staff that are heading back soon, they are likely to experience a employer’s ‘first phase of action’ for a workplace, according to Stefanie Woodward, head of interior design at Cushman & Wakefield. Woodward explains: “That is their employer should have done everything required to ensure the worker feels safe sharing a space with their co-workers all day.”

But companies will also be working on longer term further phases of action, including how office buildings will look in the future, what features they might want in new spaces, and whether they will need more or less space.

Later this month I will report on how offices in the future could look even more different, and what demand for them there will be in London.