Workplace and facilities management teams will need to balance their offerings to accommodate those continuing to work from home and those wishing to return to the workplace.
Increasingly, professional services firms are reporting a likely shift in how they perceive their corporate real estate requirements in a post-Covid-19 world. One FM director in the legal sector told Facilitate that the pandemic had shown “that we can work from home, that people benefit from working from home – but that equally people do still want an office”.
“Future decisions around our property will feature key questions around utilisation, how to use technology, how to create spaces that people can collaborate in, and digitisation of processes.”
Andrew Mawson, managing director of Advanced Workplace Associates, said many people would feel uncomfortable about returning to the office, in spite of any Covid-19 mitigation measures put in place.
“If we consider the nation’s rising anxiety levels with the cost implications of adapting work environments – then add in that organisations are by and large coping well with homeworking – then I think companies will soon realise that a home-based model is a much better alternative to the thought, effort and money involved in ‘back to work’,” said Mawson.
He suggests that FM teams in high-rise buildings would need to pay particular attention to wayfinding. “You can’t expect swathes of people to use the stairwell if they’re on the twentieth floor, nor can you expect them to get into a lift. Nobody’s going to want to be crammed into a small space with others.
“Plenty of knowledge-based organisations don’t need to be in the office. People have found ways to overcome some of the things they perhaps originally thought were going to be obstacles. Of course there will be those who – because of their personalities or the conditions they have at home – may want to come to some central place to work and socialise with others. But there are plenty of tools and strategies that can boost social cohesion without relying on the four walls of an office.”
Keen to return
There is little doubt that many people now want more flexible working as part of their standard experience of work. A survey conducted by insurers Direct Line suggested that 44 per cent of workers plan to ask for permanent flexible working arrangements after coronavirus restrictions are fully lifted. Saving time and money, along with prioritising family and health are key drivers behind this desire. One in 12 people will ask their employer if they can work from home permanently.
There is also a demographic component to the debate. A survey undertaken last month by staffing business Walters People suggests that isolation, poor mental health, and a lack of practically assigned workspace is proving problematic for young professionals living in shared housing (defined as living with parents, siblings, family, friends, housemates) Just a fifth expressed satisfaction, while just 11 per cent in shared accommodation would now like to work from home permanently, (compared with 30 per cent, the national average).
Phill Westcott, director of Walters People, said: “For the UK’s young professionals, where their living situation may be geared around functionality, the workplace plays a more central role in their social lives and wellbeing, the impact of which is being felt as lockdown measures are enforced. If employers intend to build this into their long-term plans, considerations must be given as to how professionals can better separate their home and working life.”
At time of going to press, service firms and product suppliers alike were in the throes of adapting their offerings to the need to introduce social distancing into the 2020 workplace.
Products were breaking into three broad categories: physical barriers, physical signage and sensor-assisted apps. Considerable talk about the viability of acrylic screens to reintroduce cell demarcation in open-plan offices was countered on a recent IWFM ‘Turbulent Times’ webinar as being an unnecessary uptick in the use of plastics when cardboard alternatives are on offer, or indeed the potentially more practical choice of desk-booking technology to ensure reduced occupancy levels, also offering a less visibly altered environment.
The many apps on offer typically gather feedback from sensors to monitor workspaces using algorithms both to ensure that rooms aren’t over-occupied and that people are working sufficiently apart from each other.
Systems using body temperature detection have also received much publicity, promoted as ensuring distancing as well as alerting firms to people with Covid-19 symptoms. These systems typically use thermal imaging cameras to measure body temperatures and alert operators when someone’s is too high.
However, Dr John Dunlop of Bytronic Automation warned of the need for quality standards and security for this surge in “off-the-shelf” thermal imaging solutions.
“The price point of some is far below what I know is even remotely possible in order to meet international standards for accuracy,” said Dunlop. “Many simply don’t stand up to scrutiny when put to the test in real-life situations.”
Dunlop also questioned what was likely to happen to those who fail the temperature test and are refused entry?
“How do you prove the test has been carried out to a certain standard? What rights do you have, if that place is your workplace, or if you’ve paid in advance to get in? What recourse do you have?”
Speaking on an IWFM back-to-work webinar, deputy Leesman CEO Alison English thought more walking, running and cycling to work would mean thermal imaging systems giving “false positives”.
And despite manufacturers’ protestations to the contrary, Dunlop is concerned about data security. “Is the image of your face being saved every time you pass through a barrier? Even if there’s no issue with your temperature? It shouldn’t be,” he said.
Bytronic’s own solution is an elevated body temperature (EBT) detection system that scans the area around the tear duct, “where the most accurate indication of internal body temperature can be found”.
Solutions have also included beepers to be worn around the neck or in a pocket that buzz whenever a colleague wearing one gets too close.
As well as proximity alerts, apps were also being introduced to trigger location-based reminders to users to use hand sanitiser, wash hands, or clean desks.
For service providers, Antony Law, managing director at Churchill Group said: “The only factor we can control is the infection rate, and FM is key in this pursuit”. Law’s firm is introducing a coronavirus symptom tracker allowing staff to self-report should they have symptoms or not. Among a raft of service app announcements, Bellrock spoke of its own, which tracks the wellbeing of Bellrock workers serving public sector customers. Information is relayed to Bellrock’s HR and operations teams in real-time, who can then consider any necessary interventions.