Returning to the office

May 11, 2020

Following on from the Prime Ministers announcement we now all find ourselves tip-toeing bleary eyed (from so many Zoom calls), but hopeful, towards a relaxation of the lockdown. The next phase of lockdown however is likely to have as many challenges as the first for business owners, one of which is how we might return to the office with social distancing.
At Louis de Soissons we have been working with our clients to look at how to make this return work for them, their businesses, and their staff. In this article we have outlined some of the crucial points that we have been exploring, and which we can help you with, to ensure that the process can be well-managed to provide a safe working environment that can give staff & visitors confidence in you and your business.

Why return to the office?

This is the first question we have been asking our clients.
The self-enforced, working-from-home experiment has provided many with a new way to work. Even with WFH fatigue setting in and efficiency rates falling, this has been an eye-opening experience that will affect how we work in the future. However, it has also reminded us as to the benefits of the physical office, as I explored in my last article.
https://louisdesoissons.com/the-re-birth-of-the-office/
It is important when considering how your office space can work best for you to question why you want to return there.
Each business has its own culture and identity and the office space reflects this for both its staff and its clients. With social distancing likely to affect occupancy rates due to space and commuting restrictions it is important to consider who is returning to the office and the best way to utilise the office to suit these people to benefit your business.
We have focused here on two emerging approaches ‘the collaborative focus’ and ‘the occupancy focus’.

The collaborative focus

This business type requires its office space to be focused on collaboration amongst staff and teams and to offer spaces to meet with clients, it requires spaces that offer choice to its staff. In this scenario there is less requirement for staff to sit at desks, the requirement is focused on the need for teams to creatively collaborate in the real world rather than the virtual one, and to meet with their colleagues and team leaders to agree strategies.
Much of the ‘work’ within private spaces for these businesses can currently be carried out at home and it is not efficient to use the limited occupancy of the office for these activities. In this space we have looked at removing many of the fixed seating desks and re-arranging meeting room and breakout spaces to allow them to be used in a safe and distanced manner.

The occupancy focus

This business type requires a focus on the requirement for as many staff to return to the office as is possible within safe working restrictions.
Typically, office occupancy has been based on a 1 staff member per 8 to 10sqm of office space, although this can be lower in flexible office provided spaces. However, with the 2M grid introduced to allow for safe distancing this ratio is halved (1/16 to 1/20). Therefore, in this case we have been re-purposing other spaces within the office space such as meeting rooms or breakout spaces to concentrate on maximising the safe provision of dedicated desk space.

High risk / High touch zones

There are inevitably parts of the office which will be more high risk than others in terms of ‘touch’. It is important to carry out a risk assessment to identify these by adopting what we call ‘the touch-risk journey’ for those using your office space. This is completed from entrance to desk, meeting room and other facilities which allows us to identify all those parts of your office space that have the highest touch-risk.
High touch-risk elements that require an office-wide strategy will typically include: door-handles, staircase handrails, lift buttons, printers, paper, the W.C. flush, hand dryers, signing-in equipment, phones, chairs, kettles, taps, fridges, kitchen door handles, light switches, pens, blind openers, controls for screens, heating & ventilation controls (the list goes on).

Typical high touch-risk areas to consider

As part of the process of working out how you can safely return to the office, we can look at ways to manage these high touch-risk areas, some examples of these being:
The Kettle – Almost always the first question we get asked is how are we going to safely make a cup of tea?! – Introducing a hot tap reduces the amount of touch-risk points from 3 (tap/kettle/switch) to 1 and comes with the added benefit of reducing the time associated with making a cuppa.
Printing – If your business can operate without printouts, embracing the paper-less office is the ideal solution. Both the printer screen and the paper tray require touch-risk and passing paper from person to person is not achievable in the short term.
Desk screening – This is most likely to be adopted in the ‘occupancy focused scenario’ since the screen can help with individual privacy but be more of a barrier to collaboration. Unless screens are full height (i.e. creating an enclosure) they are unlikely to be effective in reducing the spread of a virus, yet they may help to project the message that your business has provided protection. Where screens are required, they need to be easily cleanable to reduce contamination, ie no fabrics.
Clean desk / tables – There should be no personal items on desks or tables during this period, and no communal coat hanging or bag storage in the office. Introducing personal lockers at the entrance allows staff to store these on entering the office space.
Chairs – For defined desk users, chairs can be used and managed with cleaning. The use of chairs in shared spaces however is out in the short term. This means meeting rooms & collaboration spaces may be chair-less, and either used as standing only (good for reducing meeting times) or on a ‘bring your own chair’ basis. Space within the office for storage of chairs and desks needs to be considered in this context.
Reception – Visitors are likely to feel uncomfortable using a shared chair in a waiting area, meetings need to be well managed to avoid too much ‘standing around’. PPE should be readily available for visitors and if possible integrated into the office design, rather than being ‘plonked’ on the reception desk, as this will increase confidence in the perceived safety of the environment.
Door handles – there are some ingenious quick fixes to allow for elbow and touch-free operation, as outlined in this article on dezeen:
https://www.dezeen.com/2020/04/27/handle-hacks-hands-free-door-opening/
However, if doors can be left open this is the ideal approach, as it reduces touch-risk and encourages air flow through the office.
WC’s – Touch-free flushes and taps are already common in WC’s and can be easily retrofitted to existing facilities. Shared towels are out (if they were ever in), instead disposable towels / papers and touch-free bins should be integrated. Hand dryers are another option, although there is uncertainty about their use due to how they blow particles of air and water into the air.
Postal Quarantine – Ensure a space is reserved to allow for post to be quarantined, prior to opening. Enough space should be allowed for a typical 24hr period.
These are just a few examples of elements of your office space to consider. In all the above scenarios a thorough cleaning regime will be most effective to ensure that the virus is not spread. To put across the message that your office is safe however is more difficult and these solutions can help to manage that.

Other special considerations

Fresh Air & Daylight – In the office the space next to windows, especially openable windows, is the premium now more than ever. The effect of natural fresh air and daylight on well-being within the office will be higher than normal. There is unease about air conditioning systems that mix the air continuously within the office and HVAC systems may need to be disabled in the short term where natural fresh air can be utilised.
Meeting Rooms – Video conference calls are likely to feature much more, which is no bad thing. A review of your meeting rooms is required to ensure acoustics for these calls can be managed; this can be easily achieved using acoustic absorption panels. There is also the opportunity here to review business branding in the space, to ensure this is always in the background of the physical space.
Safe movement – Safe movement zones around the office will be required to maintain social distancing, and to allow the occupancy of the office to be safely managed. This can include things like one-way systems of movement, signage to manage movement and floor markers to remind staff and visitors of safe distances.
Integrated sanitisation & PPE points – Allow for integrated hand sanitising, face masks and gloves points. Whilst these things are hopefully temporary, if they are holistically designed it can increase confidence in the perceived safety of the environment.
Outside space – If you are lucky enough to have outside terrace space for your own use, considering this as part of your office space is crucial. Some of these spaces could now be re-purposed for collaboration space, but also ensure space for people to be able to relax and reflect as well.
Cycle Storage & Showers – it is likely that a higher percentage of staff and visitors will arrive via cycle or foot during the next few months, additional cycle storage within the building, or within your office space itself is worth considering, along with additional showering facilities where space is available.

How we can help

All these aspects are worth considering when returning to the office, to ensure a safe workspace, and to ensure that the culture and identity of your business is communicated to both your staff and clients. We understand that there is a lot to consider, if you need any help preparing your office space for the return to work our team are ready and here to help.
We will review your existing floorplans and prepare an initial report of recommendations based on proposed changes from the minor to the major interventions. We can help with proposed space layouts, managing the process of re-organisation and organising any construction works that be required.

James Greenaway is a Director of the Architecture team at Louis de Soissons. James has over 15 years of experience working with landlords and tenants in the commercial office sector.


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