Planning the return to the office: view from the frontline

Amongst all the comment that already exists out there about the impact of Covid-19 on office design and what office life will therefore be like in the future, I guess there hasn’t been so much written by those people who are actually having to make recommendations for their own organisations. I also guess that this is because they are far too busy working it out for real and are having to grapple with all the uncertainty and all the competing views from within their own organisations in the process. I am not one of those people, but we at brainybirdz have been asked to assist clients we know already, as they try to chart an acceptable course through this. So, on their behalf, here are some of the realities we see them facing.

In-house property and services teams in particular, are having to weigh up multiple factors and multiple points of view. The focus is on the here and now and understandably on some very practical stuff. How and when can people start working from the office again? How many people can we safely accommodate and how many hand sanitiser points will we need? Some are also already thinking long term about using the experience of working from home to fast track a more agile way of working in the future. We know this from some of those we have spoken to, and there have of course been some publicly reported examples of this, such as the big tech companies who are ‘leading the work-from-home revolution.

All of this creates a massive challenge to match up two things. First the needs of the organisation, which may well have changed fundamentally because of the economic impact of the pandemic and may need to be reassessed accordingly. Second, what is physically possible given the requirement, for the foreseeable future, to ensure adequate infection control. And this is a balancing act that needs to be thought about both for the short and longer term.

We have seen reactions to this problem vary, and much of that has to do with the assessment of risk. Risk is of course in itself, very hard to judge at the moment. We have heard strong arguments to not even contemplate a return to work before the end of this calendar year, made because the risk of serious infection is still deemed to be too great. Others are trying to find ways to make it possible for at least some staff to return before then.

In this case there are also many questions: Is this the time to make fundamental changes to office layout or how can we make best use of what we already have? Where is the budget to be able to commit to the spending that might be required? How many people are ‘mission critical’ in a way that they absolutely need to be physically co-located? How much should individual preferences for returning to the office guide decisions? Should we focus only on providing distanced individual workpoints or is it just as important to think about safe social interaction? What can we do about our circulation routes to ensure acceptable distancing? How closely do we follow the (UK) Government guidelines when specific about distances and protocols or should we be even more cautious? We have done so much to open up our workspace but do we now need screens again? The list goes on.

We have seen one cross functional working group, set up to try to work through these sorts of questions, engage in fierce debate, but with a huge amount of honesty and genuine desire to jointly solve the problem. In uncertain times we think this is exactly what is required. Pretending all the answers are known already will lead nowhere, but thoroughly debating the pros and cons of the possible approaches, as widely as possible, will lead to co-created solutions that are therefore more likely to work.

One thought on “Planning the return to the office: view from the frontline

  1. Pingback: Configurational thinking in times of Covid-19 – how to make the most of the workplace layout you already have | brainybirdz

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