In my time at the BBC, I have led many highly complex change programmes. Our reoccupation strategy during the Covid-19 pandemic has brought a unique set of challenges and high-pressure timeframes.
The BBC has begun to reoccupy some of its properties across the UK – equating to more than 2m sq ft of space – using a reoccupation strategy that creates a baseline, which can be adapted to accommodate ongoing changes in government guidance.
It feels as though we are in uncharted waters – in my career, we have never faced a public health crisis like this. We are responding to these unprecedented times by focusing on wellness and adhering to the latest regulations and guidance, while listening to what people actually want and need.
I think articles on ‘the death of the office’ or ‘the demise of open-plan working’ are missing the point. The office is not ‘open’ or ‘closed’, nor is it a singular thing that can simply be dismissed. Good workplaces are constantly alive and elastic; they are built from spaces that need careful calibration and environments that are constantly responding to new factors, such as technology, lifestyles or public health concerns. Put simply, a good workplace should be able to adapt to the changes brought about by the pandemic. How you go about this, however, is a topic for debate.
The recalibration of workplaces is no mean feat and requires a massive team effort from the occupier, facilities management (FM) teams, designers and engineers. My key takeaway from stage one of reoccupation is that teamwork – rather than relying on products – is the best way to minimise the risks associated with a return to the office. For example, putting barriers between desks is being discussed as a solution; however, this will have little impact without the right thinking and planning to back it up.
Barriers between desks can create a more cellular environment, but what about circulation spaces and amenities? There needs to be a much more rigorous plan for designated and shared spaces in place; this is the difficult, and most interesting, part for workplace professionals. Without this careful thought, companies are in danger of developing plans that are costly (both financially and environmentally) and cannot flex over time.
Flexibility is key. At the time of writing, the government has just changed its guidance on physical distancing and, outside the workplace, is planning to reopen the hospitality sector. We can adapt to these considerable changes by recalibrating our current strategy without needing to purchase products.
Through working with interior design group ID:SR Sheppard Robson, we have built on the idea of creating legible, intuitive internal masterplans within our buildings that minimise the risks that Covid-19 presents. Because we are working with an estate of around 30 buildings, we have established a series of principles that can be scaled-up to quickly effect change.
This has been achieved by rethinking the journey through our buildings nearly every step of the way, including clearly sign-posted wayfinding to introduce new ways of moving around the building, as well as ways to avoid gatherings by changing catering options to ‘grab and go’ and adapting other places where queueing naturally occurs.
Like the visionary masterplan, hundreds of details and changes to the FM and cleaning underpin a new experience of the office, which can be adapted over time to respond to inevitable shorter-term fluctuations and long-term changes in behaviour.
In my mind, successful spaces have always relied on thinking first and products second, and the current situation should be a continuation of this approach of making good, people-focused workplaces.
This is easier said than done and our ideas of agility, wellness and productivity will be stress-tested like never before. However, with the right custodians, a workplace should still be able to be central to an organisation’s output and culture.
Alan Bainbridge is director of workplace and corporate real estate at the BBC