Over the last few months we’ve seen a great deal of mixed-messaging and uncertainty from the Government around the sensitive issue of returning to the office.

Allan Wood

Allan Wood

Whilst we might not register a dramatic influx to city centres for a number of weeks, even months, eventually we’ll see businesses start requiring employees to come in for, if not full time, then at least a few days per week. Fundamentally, there’s too much at stake for commercial asset owners, investors and the business leaseholder.

Many have spent large amounts of capital reimagining and refitting offices in order to make them safe for personnel. That’s not to mention those organisations which refurbished, pre-pandemic, at great expense, and want to get the most from their investment.

However, in all this we must remain acutely aware of the returning workers themselves. Attitudes have fundamentally changed, as employees have become used to remote working as the norm. What was once the exception is now the rule.

Further, oversights and omissions within the office design, and facilities available, previously accepted are no longer tolerated. A participant in a recent roundtable we held on the ‘Future of the Office Post-Covid’, put it succinctly, “We cannot be designing spaces which were adequate two years ago. The landscape has irrevocably changed and we need to respond with spaces which meet contemporary expectations.”

Certainly, this seismic, cultural shift has prompted a sea change in office space layout and fit-out, and it’s something business and landlords alike need to take seriously. As an HR director at the same event put it, “it can now be the difference between retaining, or attracting employees, or a company deciding to sign a lease on a services space”. So there are definitely commercial benefits to evolving office design alongside workforce priorities.

The good news is, for those not already doing so, reappraising the interior design of a commercial office space does not have to be difficult. However, in the post-Covid age, it requires a human touch and a certain degree of conscientiousness, with qualities like empathy, intuitiveness and flexibility ingrained to the brief.

Fundamentally, it’s about much more than throwing up partitions (although these are important, for a wide number of reasons). It needs to be carefully curated, working closely with the commissioned architect or designer to establish a layout which is not only going to be fit-for-business-purposes, but also make employees fell safe, secure and motivated.

Where work once seeped into life, life now spills into work and there are few now enticed by the thought of a stuffy, cramped and badly lit office which all impact on physical and mental wellbeing. Workers want to feel they’re looked after by the environment they’re in, as much as for the company they work for. That’s why people-centric layouts, and fit-out, are so crucial.

People are now far more concerned about the wider environment and ecosystem too. They expect the organisation they work for to have a solid ESG strategy, and this needs to be reflected within the structure, fixtures and finishes of the way they work too. So again, it’s about conscientious design which has a wider positive impact beyond the four walls of the workspace. For example, could you be incorporating a passive or hybrid HVAC system over a purely mechanical one, at once delivering better air quality and lower emissions?

What all this suggests is our office spaces need to become a lot more personal, centred around the individual employee and creating a setting in which they can be their most productive. The age of presenteeism is over and we shouldn’t be trying to go back to it.

If you’ve not already start to consider it, reappraise the spaces you’re looking to lease, or, equally important, which your employees will be returning to. Could they be performing better post-Covid, and are they specified to the new needs of the workforce? Vitally, will your business get the best from them in that environment?

It’s a delicate balance to strike, but it is this approach to office design which will encourage people back into the office, delivering long-term value and all-important ROI from the fit-out investment.

Ultimately, outstanding working environments are a win-win for owner, leaseholder, designer, contractor and end-user alike.

Allan Wood, Managing Director, Optima Systems

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WorkSpace, featuring AV Works, takes place 1 October 2021 in London. Property Week and AV Magazine will once again be partnering to bring you game-changing content that will open your eyes to the shifts happening across workspaces. 

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