The Three-Step Approach to Office Reopening

As lockdown restrictions ease, estate and facilities teams are looking closely at how they can safely enable employees to return to the office. 

Some large international firms have already reopened their office locations across the UK and Ireland. PWC has reopened six of its major UK offices, in a phased return which will prioritise employees whose work benefits most from an office location. Advertising group Publicis is reopening, taking a phased ‘slow and cautious approach’, while Citygroup also talked of its ‘cautious, careful’ steps to reopen its central locations. Smaller businesses are opening up, too, across many different industries. Home working may remain a popular option, but while many employees want to continue working remotely at least some of the time, 25% are craving a return to the office finding they’re working longer hours at home and missing the buzz of office life.

Detailed planning is taking place behind-the-scenes of many businesses to allow safe office re-opening.  Some of our clients have approached us to talk about the changes they need to make to their work environments, to their technology and processes, so they can bring back staff safely and successfully.  Although every conversation, every business and every industry is different, and there are many stages in the reopening process, these plans are generally based on three building blocks. If your organisation is in the planning phase, these steps could provide a helpful framework for you:

1. Consider how the office space will be used and how employees will travel there

Before planning any physical changes to their offices, leadership teams are considering how their employees like to work and how they want to use the space. They are asking their teams what they want from returning to the office: when and how often they might feel comfortable doing so, how they plan to travel there and what they’d like to get from going back to the office. With social distancing almost impossible on public transport during peak times and lift shares not advisable, travel to and from offices will need reassessing.

Some businesses are finding that employees are nervous about returning, particularly those that share their homes with elderly or clinically vulnerable family members. Working remotely doesn’t suit everyone, and for some, the home environment doesn’t provide an appropriate or productive workspace, so these considerations need to be factored into the planning process.

Then there are the social and motivational factors workers gain from the office environment: one study looked at what workers miss most about office life when they’re working remotely. 41% miss office jokes, 40% miss their colleagues, 30% miss brainstorming and 17% miss the ability to learn from others.  Fulfilling these requirements and ensuring employees have a collaborative workspace in which they can feel comfortable, interact, socialise and learn is challenging at the moment. But listening to employees sends out a very clear message: the business takes their opinions seriously, and their safety is paramount.

2. Introduce new measures and communicate expectations

Once businesses are informed about employees’ expectations, requirements and preferences, they can start bringing in appropriate safety measures. The government’s ‘Working Safely During Coronavirus’ document sets out a number of key requirements for companies reopening, with detailed guidance.

The measures businesses may choose to bring in, in accordance with the government’s guidelines, may be physical or organisational changes such as staggering team returns to keep buildings at low occupancy levels; using markers and posters to aid social distancing; barriers or screens between desks; additional sanitising points and removing ‘middle’ desks in rows. New requirements around behaviours are also being brought in, such as educating employees on new hygiene expectations and the wearing of PPE and providing clear guidelines on processes should any workers fall ill while in the workplace. Businesses are encouraged to consider the safest way to contain the virus in the event of live cases. For example, grouping teams according to skills or by direct report would make it easier to isolate individuals and minimise the spread of infection.

3. Turn to technology

Technology has made the global shift to remote working a lot easier. Video conferencing applications such as Microsoft Teams, Skype and Zoom have helped us stay connected with colleagues, family and friends, while many other cloud-based applications have made it simple for teams to collaborate while working remotely. Businesses are also turning to technology to solve issues when it comes to delivering a seamless, safe transition back to the workplace. Smart Access Management systems, for example, allow contactless employee and visitor sign-in and the ability to track the flow of people within the building. Real-time reporting functionality helps organisations improve traceability, should they need to.  

Technology is also helping businesses manage office space effectively. Back in the office, workers will expect to collaborate and catch up with their colleagues. 73% of UK office staff work in open plan offices, and there are meeting rooms, breakout areas and huddle rooms which are usually in demand. When minimising the potential spread of infection is the critical goal, these spaces will change in structure, layout and purpose, but employees arriving at the office will expect to have a space to be productive, to collaborate and complete their work successfully. These technologies, which help limit face-to-face interactions, will become increasingly valuable to businesses in reducing the risk of virus transmission.

Using these three building blocks as the basis for your ‘Return to the Office’  will provide a structured, successful and safe reopening for all stakeholders.