The UK Needs to Rethink Where and How We Build Offices
In a series of articles, CEO Andy Steele will be looking at how the current crisis will affect the way we do business, and whether it will foster new thinking and new ways of working to help the construction industry address its deep rooted challenges on productivity and value.
Will future offices be bigger, smaller or located in different places? Will they be facilities where the day-to-day of business happens, or places for teams to come together to collaborate and meet with clients on a more ad-hoc basis? Will businesses have a more flexible approach to those who want the more informal sharing of information, or social environment of offices and those that don’t? Will we have the space and set up to work from home longer term? So much uncertainty, and so much need for more flexibility.
The truth is, we don’t know how much Covid-19 will affect the configuration, design and location of office space. Usually, crisis-induced change is temporary. As soon as they are able, things rapidly revert to how they were before.
But this is different. There was already a trend towards more remote and flexible working. The Covid lockdown has shown that many office-based staff appreciate the time-efficiency and work-life balance that come from not commuting to the office every day. As those commutes have got longer and longer for many, with the need to find more affordable housing or where their roots are, this has come into sharper focus.
Early evidence suggests that productivity improves when people are trusted to make decisions about when, where and how they work (Workplace Insight). Of course, the productivity boost could be driven by the change of environment. Maybe levels will revert to the mean over time.
In all probability, most substantial businesses will still need a centralised base of some kind and many staff will continue to need an office to work from. But it’s hard to see everyone going back to how things were. Here are some of the drivers that I believe will be in play as we evolve into post-Covid ways of working and start to look at designing and building the office infrastructure of the future.
For the foreseeable future, office-based work will have to accept limitations imposed by the realities of Covid security. There are Health & Safety and RIDDOR obligations that employers can’t ignore. It will be some time before offices can run at full capacity and maybe they never will. A move from 2m to 1m distancing probably carries a greater risk if you are in an enclosed environment next to the same people for eight hours.
A resilient business will have to have plans to manage possible future spikes of Covid-19 infection rates and for future pandemics that require a 2m distancing. A large, crowded, open-plan office without natural ventilation may be something we don’t see anymore.
Every business will have its own diverse needs and challenges. Will offices need to be larger to accommodate distancing, or smaller because most staff spend at least some of the week working at home?
Working out how to manage a shift towards a greater blend between office and home working raises further questions. Will people rotate and desk share? Will they be happy doing this and what are the health risks and implications for cleaning regimes? Will they rotate in terms of being in work, but maintain their own desk to provide the balance between space requirements and wellbeing?
We now have greater awareness that work needn’t mean millions of people commuting on overcrowded public transport to large town and city centre office blocks. But what’s the alternative? Maybe it’s smaller, distributed offices on the edge of towns that staff can easily travel to when needed. Perhaps we are talking about facilities that are shared by staff from different companies and a growth of co-working spaces.
There’s also a possibility that the freelancer economy will grow as firms release staff when the Job Retention Scheme support is scaled down. Not all of those people will be able to work at home.
Uncertainty and an accelerated change in working patterns will drive a need for greater flexibility in how office accommodation is built and fitted out. Ease of repurposing will be an increasingly important consideration.
And if it’s hard to know how things will look in six months, never mind six years, does it make it more viable to use methods that are cheaper to build and have a shorter shelf-life? A sixty-year design life may be plenty.
While we’ve all been focusing on Covid-19, we can’t afford to ignore the environment and climate change. Construction is a large consumer of resources and a large emitter of CO2. We can’t stop building, but maybe now is the time to start building differently. The industry should step up the adoption of MMC, which can emit less CO2 and sequester more atmospheric carbon through the greater use of structural timber.
I believe this is the time for change. To move away from old-school thinking and embrace all the material, technological and process innovations that have been taking place for the last decade or more. The industry must also deliver the project efficiency gains that have become possible with the emergence of digital communications and meetings.
Above all, we must take this opportunity to look at projects and processes with fresh eyes and develop better solutions. This means being open minded, transparent and honest. We must build projects around the concept of shared goals, not conflicting ones. Above all, we must set about making the built environment more flexible to suit a rapidly changing world.