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  • Writer's pictureLouise Coombs

Return to the Workplace - A new way of working

4 years ago I wrote this:

“A perfectly designed workplace means all the problems presented to the designer have been solved. Every project is individual because every company’s requirements are unique.

A good business should be efficient and effective – and this can be helped by the design. Staff well-being and their performance is key in creating a perfectly balanced environment, and culture for a business to thrive in.

A space plan that works well for the business and a layout creating spaces which allows staff to perform to the best of their ability is fundamental to the basis of a good design.

The more you involve your designer – the better the final design will be.”

This is still relevant today… more so than ever. Staff will be the ones who need to adapt to a new normal – after having spent months getting used to being away from their colleagues, managers and workplace environment, being self-sufficient and self-motivated – the return to the workplace is now increasingly upon them along with another wave of fear of the unknown, and people are concerned...

Social Distancing will certainly be the norm for a while… trusting your work colleagues to maintain and respect this in and out of the workplace is key. We tend to trust people and places we are familiar with. The ‘Stranger Danger’ element is what will cause the most anxiety to people with the return to the office. If you are in London and other city centres, the commute is a challenging one – avoiding public transport – not everyone will suddenly be cycling proficient (me for one!) and walking will become more commonplace. Once at work – staff will need to feel that it is an oasis of calm amongst the crazy outside world. Putting up desk screens and creating small barricades’ is probably not the most encouraging and harmonious of working environments, all be it sensible when dealing with members of the public – they would be giving employees a constant reminder of the war we are up against.

Cleaning regimes are going to become of upmost importance. New ‘surface spray antibac’ systems are being suggested as a good solution for cleaning workplaces, along with hand Sanitation Stations at every entrance / exit point. A clear desk policy is a sensible quick and easy solution which should be enabled to ensure the desks and surrounding areas can be properly cleaned at the end of each day, whilst staff may gravitate to a particular desk – the nature of the distancing rules will require everyone to spread out… Removing ownership of a desk at this stage will allow this Nomadic style of desk use to become commonplace. Not to be confused with ‘Hot Desks’ which are a bank of desks for staff not usually based in the office. The clear desk policy and removal of staff’s personal possessions will allow for this transition to occur naturally. Staff can spread out and sit in a regular seat everyday if they chose - but at the end of the day it’s cleared and easy to clean. The new Key Workers will be the cleaning team that come in every night and empty the bins and wipe down all the surfaces, door handles and manage the dishwasher… their dedication in keeping the office workers safe will become as important to the overall process as the ‘unsung hero’ food delivery drivers were to the house bound in lockdown.

Lots of ideas have been in the media with solutions for the workplace - I am not personally convinced the ‘one way traffic’ route around the office would work in practice as people will always resort to the path of least resistance. The desks nearest the designated corridors will be the least popular unless shielded in some way from the passing traffic. Although certainly 'push to exit' buttons should be changed to touch free sensors where possible, as should WC flush systems, taps and light switches – discouraging areas of high traffic from requiring any need to be touched.

Taking the pressure off the main staff T point by locating coffee machines, water taps and microwaves into satellite areas around the office will help. Allowing staff access to Dettol* surface spray and wipes, encouraging self-cleaning up habits in these areas too. Arranging soft seating / high table areas near these for staff to sit at a safe distance and chat with colleagues will also take pressure off the central breakout area.

Adapting and creating smaller meeting rooms / booths with green screens for the predicted increase in virtual meetings – Zoom Rooms or Team Booths… meetings will certainly become more virtual in the future and unnecessary travel should be discouraged and reduced from a time efficiency and environmental aspect too.

The biggest factor to come out of this huge unplanned social experiment – is that staff will now want CHOICES…. Most will have embraced the Working from Home concept and seen how efficient it can be. Others will be on their starting blocks to get back to the ‘real world’. Either way – having the CHOICE to work from home / a desk / other areas in the office are what staff will desire now. Coffee Shops and other previous places of escapism will not be available at first, so creating spaces within the safe office environment for staff to gravitate to would certainly be advantageous – encourage staff to bring in their lunch, restricting the amount they have to leave the building and integrate with ‘others’ outside. Allowing them the freedom to work from home a few days a week, and where possible do an assessment to ensure their home working environment is fit for purpose – offer loan of an ergonomic chair and larger monitor for them to use at home – and also allow them to come in and leave at different times to stagger their peak commute times, and in some instances only come in when necessary. Some people are early birds, some are not. Give staff the CHOICE.

People are the most important part of any business – more so now than ever. Keeping them safe, happy and keeping the company culture alive is what will create a successful workplace going forward. Creating and adapting existing environments to help your staff feel safe, welcome and engaged again is what is key to a successful “post-covid” workplace.

No gimmicks.

No quick wins.

…. Just a simple understanding of what choices your staff require, and a coherent efficient solution.

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