Employers are rethinking office space, and not only to take into account post-Covid health and safety considerations. More than anything, they have to ensure workers are happy to return.

Until Covid, many employees spent as much – if not more – time at their office desks than they did at home. That has all been turned on its head and office-based employees have been shown a new way of working.

It has been estimated by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) that pre-Covid, 5 per cent of the UK office workforce worked full-time from home. The pandemic changed that and only 5 per cent of office workers remain unable to work from home.

The Covid experience means employers are rethinking office space, not only to incorporate the safety precautions of social distancing, cleaning regimes and ventilation but to make their employees happy to return to their desks.

“Organisations are thinking hard about the kind of footprint they need and the mix of spaces they need in that footprint overall,” says Gillian Stewart, chair of the British Council for Offices (BCO) Scottish Committee and director of Michael Laird Archi- tects’ Glasgow office.

“Some are using this opportunity to plan for the future. They might have a lease break or a lease running out soon, so they’ll be thinking ‘what do we actually need; we’ve got an opportunity to rethink how we use space’.

“But I don’t think I’ve had an example of any organisation that’s just given up a lease completely to have no space at all. Although I’ve heard rumours on the market that some people have done that.
Add the fact that several construction projects were completed last year and it means the Scottish office market is seeing plenty of activity.

“Construction only stopped for about three months in the first lockdown in Scotland. In England it didn’t stop at all. This is partly because it is a fairly safe working environment if you’re on a building site.

“You work individually or in pairs and everything is health and safety assured anyway, so you always wear PPE. Security glasses, hard hat, gloves, high viz and safety shoes are all absolutely compulsory, so to put on a face visor or a mask wasn’t much different. They just applied temperature testing equipment and monitoring so they could quickly go back to work.”

The next step is seeing employees back inside the office. Many have found benefits in working from home and may need to be enticed back.

A report in The Financial Times this month suggested that London firms were offering employees incentives including financial bonuses (to buy new office clothes or a bicycle), yoga classes, free meals and social events to ease the return to their desks.

The environment they return to will be different. It will involve a much more joined-up approach especially as people adopt a hybrid of home and office-based working.

“What’s really important is that the people who operate and clean and maintain the space know who’s coming in and when they’re coming in, to make sure it’s ready,” says Stewart.

“I think the role of the facilities manager or building operator is more important than it was before and it’s important to have policies so that staff communicate.

“So, if you’re going to come in, you have to book a desk, you com- municate with your team and with the organisation so that everything is a bit more curated.”

The BCO has been supporting its members with post-Covid technical standards. It published a briefing note in July 2021 called Counting the Cost of Covid-19 which looks at the implications of Covid for office buildings and covers topics such as antibacterial design, increased cleaning, ventilation, touch-free journeys and occupancy density. “Things like having natural ventilation where possible and considering the amount of fresh air that you can

From a design perspective, it means that we will get more interesting, more vibrant offices Gillian Stewart
get in a building, even if it’s mechanically provided,” says Stewart.

“For occupancy density, typically the industry standard is one person in 8m2 net internal area of your whole building. In a more distributed wayit will be 1:8m2 to 1:10m2. You could actually get away with providing less, but the BCO is saying that you should stick to 1:8 or 1:10 because it means that the building will be able to cope if more people do come in, in the future.”

For Stewart, the design of the interior space will be key to employees’ health and wellbeing. This is
not something new: laptops cut workers free of the traditional office two decades ago and where desk-time once ruled, we saw Silicon Valley-style games rooms and breakout spaces to foster sociability and team work.

A focus on employees’ needs has seen office buildings increasingly fitted with gyms, secure bike stores and changing facilities for runners and cyclists. “I’ve always been very interested in the success of businesses that use space and their culture and their people. So for me, it’s almost like the occupier is more important than ever.”

Stewart points to the difference in contact centre design. “There used to be a ‘how many desks can you get in and what’s the minimum square metres per person allowed’ approach.

“Now we see the size of the desk coming down and the increase of provision of breakout space because sitting with a headset looking at a screen for eight hours a day, employ- ees need to be able to take a break, to walk around, to access outside space, to go on a running machine or sit in the canteen … just to get their brain switched off a bit.”

She adds: “From a design perspective, it means that we will get more interesting, more vibrant offices being designed – and it could be that maybe the amount of space people take will be less.”

Stewart is also seeing organisations looking at their portfolio and thinking if people have something else available that’s between home and office.“ A hub and a spoke site somewhere local which has space employees can use,” she suggests and points to high street banks with office space where their WFH staff can drop in to use the facilities. “It doesn’t have to be just home or office, there are options out there.”

Stewart concludes: “It’s recognising that actually your staff are your most valuable asset and if you look after your staff, then they will perform for you.“I suppose it’s as simple as that, making sure that they are well mentally, well physically and allowing time for that.”