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Analysing Short and Long-Term Workplace Trends After COVID-19

Analysing Short and Long-Term Workplace Trends After COVID-19
08 July 2020 | Updated 15 July 2020

Workplace trends have undoubtedly shifted during the COVID-19 lockdown, but which will stand the test of time and become part of our working culture?

Phil Oram, is a Regional Director at Crown Workspace and has over 20 years of experience in the workspace and commercial relocation industries. In this opinion piece, he tells us his predictions on the short and long term workplace changes we’ve been experiencing.

"Agile working will almost certainly decrease in the near future, but the office space is still required - there’s still a need to get people together in a real way. Blending may prove to be the buzzword in 2021 as the two worlds come together; but the office isn’t about to disappear."

–Phil Oram

Regional Director, Crown Workspace


Do we Need an Office at all?


There are so many factors which influence trends in workspace design and workplace culture, so planning for life after COVID-19 is no easy task for businesses which want to look beyond 2020.

Employees are returning to a very different environment as lockdown eases; an office in which hygiene is top of the priority list and where social distancing principles lie behind almost everything they see.

What is most complicated for employers is how to work out what new trends in the workplace environment will be just a temporary fix, and perhaps stay in place for only a few months as people adjust, and which will be around for the long term?

In fact, some are even asking: do we need an office at all? And that’s a poignant question when you consider how well millions of people have coped with working from home.

It’s easy to make those kind of fast-trigger reactions at a time when most of us are finding it hard to imagine the world as it used to be, before pandemic was the first word in every news report and the first consideration in every business decision.

But talking to clients across all sectors, a picture is starting to build of what the “Big Return To Work” will look like in the short term and how it might look a few months down the line.


Short Term


Let’s look first at some of the immediate and short-term issues for those tasked with re-designing the workspace in a new post-COVID era.


1. The hygiene screen


A screen to shield computer users from their colleagues, and to prevent germs moving from one work station to another, is pretty much number one on the list for all businesses.  We can expect to see them in offices across the country. But it’s not a completely simple fix. Already we have seen a shortage in the UK of acrylic, leaving some companies with a long wait to order screens in.

Fortunately, there are other types of plexiglass and perspex which can be used to provide a barrier. The same would be true even of cardboard screens, a cheap if unattractive, short-term solution for smaller businesses.

Then there’s a decision about how high to make them. The average screen is 600mm high, but we’ve already had orders for 950mm screens which protect users even when they stand up.

Perhaps, just as important a consideration is whether these screens are a gimmick to keep people happy now – or whether they will be part of office design for years to come.

They certainly give employees an extra confidence factor - most have seen them in use at supermarket tills and therefore believe they work. But environmentally speaking, they go against the grain in a world where we are trying to reduce the amount of plastic we consume.


2. Spacing between desks


We are seeing a lot of businesses remove desks to increase space – but many are putting those desks in storage rather than throwing them away. It suggests they see the current re-design as a temporary measure.

The new layouts are likely to stay in place for the coming months, but if we find a cure or vaccine then it could start to change again in 2021.

There must be a sensible level of response in terms of office layout, too. In the supermarket, we are still walking past each other. You can’t change everything because once a day someone might walk past the back of your chair. But people are that fearful, and in the short term, measures need to be taken to allay their fears and get them back into the workplace.


3. Homeworking


There have been a lot of articles already about the death of the office, suggesting more and more people will work from home in future having done so without problems during the lockdown.

However, not all businesses share that prediction. Many believe that homeworking will stay for the remainder of the year but will morph into flexible working after that – an environment in which people spend some time in the office and some at home.

We have heard of companies that want to end their lease and either move somewhere smaller or even do without an office long term. They see this as the time to make a clean break and make homeworking the new normal. But the advice in the industry is not to be too hasty giving up space. Let things settle down and see how it pans out. We believe the office will be back.


4. Closure of collaborative and creative work space


On-trend workspace design until now was aimed at introducing areas where people would meet and collaborate in the office. Small pods, for instance, where there was a big screen and a cosy atmosphere to inspire ideas and creativity. That’s going to change. It’s certainly gone for this year. 

But don’t bank on it disappearing all together. Some designers believe people’s attitudes will change within a year and once we can give our family members a hug, people will feel more confident in the office, providing COVID-19 is under control.


Long Term


1. The end of Hotdesking


We’ve spent 10 years getting everyone used to agile working and hotdesking, but with one eye permanently on the next pandemic it’s hard to see that trend surviving.

Many businesses may go back to a much more fixed position. If you turn up to a hotdesk, there’s a keyboard and mouse there and possibly a docking station and phone, all of which have been used by someone else who sat there yesterday. Unless you have a cleaning regime in which every keyboard and every mouse is cleaned every few hours, then agile working does not work in the current conditions.  That could be a real game-changer in the industry.

Ironically, it could also save the big office - because it means businesses do still need the footprint to incorporate all those desks. If a company has 5,000 employees and wants 2,000 of them in the office, there will need to be space.


2. Cleaning Regimes


These are likely to be here to stay. There will be a much bigger focus on sanitising the office environment. We’ll see cleaning done on a rota, either overnight in smaller businesses or throughout the day in bigger operations. Now that the public has a heightened awareness of hygiene, it’s an issue that won’t go away.


3. Protecting Against Future Pandemic Through Design – and Location


When businesses go through tough times, they inevitably plan to ensure they can survive trauma in future. This happens in recessions, for instance, when companies centralise and decentralise. When they are growing, they all want to be in the City offices. When things crash, they scatter out to cheaper destinations.

As the biggest fear right now for employees is transport, over the next few years you might see companies come away from the big 40-50 storey buildings and move to business parks where people can drive to instead of taking the Tube. Offices where you can use the stairs instead of lifts will be more popular, too.


4. New Design Trends


There will be some future design based around pandemic, that’s for sure. In the past, Europe has been relatively shielded from pandemic, but COVID-19 will make designers think again. In China they were already more equipped in their ways of working. But the biggest trend we’ll see short term is people leaving their big city offices behind and moving to suburbia. New design trends will follow as a result.


5. Office Re-sale


Re-using and redistributing office furniture is a trend that we see continuing as businesses look to equip employees with better furniture and equipment when they work at home.

Crucially, businesses remain liable for the health and safety of employees even when they work outside of the office. We have seen major clients allowing staff to purchase home office setups and claim this back.


Is This the Death of the Office?


Looking at all those factors, one of the biggest questions being asked right now is: will Covid-19 mean the death of the office?

There are experts out there who believe it could, suggesting that employees have become so adept at working from home that businesses will opt to save money by not having an office at all.

They will use virtual meetings instead of dragging people into big cities and use scan-on-demand technology to ensure vital documentation can be accessed safely without the need for a physical office space, even in the legal sector.

But the voices urging caution are louder.

Businesses have seen homeworking can work, but from a mental health perspective many believe it’s not the way forward – and that employees need community and a space to share, at least some of the time.

Agile working will almost certainly decrease in the near future, but the office space is still required - there’s still a need to get people together in a real way. Blending may prove to be the buzzword in 2021 as the two worlds come together; but the office isn’t about to disappear.

Picture: A photograph of an office interior

Article written by Phil Oram | Published 08 July 2020


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