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In a short space of time the world of work has been turned upside down. Old norms, behaviours and habits have been broken to be replaced with a post pandemic reality that will have lasting and fundamental effects on the future of both work and the workplace.

In our latest blog, Aki Stamatis, Director of Fourfront Group, Guenaelle Watson, Managing Director of 360 Workplace and Area’s Design Director, Kathryn O’Callaghan-Mills, share their thoughts and advice on what employers should consider in order to create a safe and healthy workplace for the people using it.

What are the main considerations an employer should think about when planning their business’ return to work?

Guenaelle Watson (GW): Initially it’s about understanding how people feel about returning to the workplace. As an employer you need to recognise what your team’s individual remote working experiences have been and what their concerns are about returning to the office environment so you can address these through communication. Additionally, to maintain a high level of hygiene and to adhere to social distancing guidelines, there are practical elements to implement to prepare the physical workplace.

Aki Stamatis (AS): As Guenaelle says, to ensure your working environment is safe before bringing people back into it, there are a number of physical aspects to consider. Firstly, you need to prepare your building. In most cases that means talking to your landlord because that responsibility is shared when considering communal areas such as the building’s entry and egress routes, access to reception, lift use etc. If you’re a tenant in a multi-storey, multi-tenanted building, it can get complicated, so there is shared responsibility to work together with your landlord to resolve any challenges.

Within your own working environment, the most important aspect is social distancing. This sets the tone in so many ways as to what physical barriers you may need. If you can create a capacity in your building to return to work, then you can start to assess how many people can come back, as well as who should come back, for example, vulnerable people clearly shouldn’t.

If we take our own experience, we have been working out what is the capacity of our workspaces, then we’ve reviewed who needs to come back into them in the short term. That has led to conversations about rotas, desk allocations, as well as hygiene factors and social distancing measures. It’s important to think about whether your tea point complies with social distancing rules and define protocols regarding the use of toilet facilities, circulation routes, staircases etc.

Echoing what Guenaelle said, it’s important to understand what employees feel currently and how they will feel coming back into the space. If you return to your working environment and it’s exactly how you left it before lockdown, that will not make individuals feel safe. Equally, it’s insufficient to stick a sign on the wall requesting people adhere to social distancing protocols and think that’s enough. There is a lot of responsibility on the leadership of a business to set the tone and practice what they preach.

Distancing will remain at the heart of any return to work policy. How can social distancing measures be incorporated into working environments?

Kathryn O’Callaghan-Mills (KOCM): First and foremost, you need to apply the 2m rule to your working environment. The guidelines released by the government have been helpful in providing more structure to what businesses need to do. If a company can allocate a 1-1 person to desk ratio then they should. If they can’t then companies should look at implementing a staggered return to work with certain teams being in on certain days. This then gives companies a framework of how they can safely return to work and implement social distancing measures. 

Every workplace environment, everybody is different, and employers need to understand their workforce and what they perceive as safe and mitigate any concerns. For example, some people won’t have an issue with a Perspex screen in between them and another person sitting opposite, but other personality types may have a problem with this. It’s therefore crucial that employers understand the requirements of the individuals within their workforce and apply the necessary social distancing measures.

On a different note, I have been impressed by how many products have become available to help make common areas, which are more complicated spaces to social distance in, compliant with distancing guidelines. Suppliers have adapted very quickly to expand their offering to include hands-free products and protection screens.

GW: Communication will play a huge part when incorporating social distancing practices. We’re all creatures of habit, so when returning to the office environment which is familiar and comfortable, it’s easy to forget we’re in a post-pandemic situation. Therefore, signage and visual cues will play an instrumental role in reminding people about hygiene, where to sit and how to behave.

Another key factor is people, HR and flexible working. This is a good opportunity to rethink working practices in the broader sense and not look solely at the physical workplace but also how you can adopt flexible working practices. Specifically at the beginning of the process where there will be a staggered return to work approach, review your flexible working policies and determine which individuals can work from home due to the nature of their role, and ensure their home working environments are just as safe as the physical workspace.

People are worried about their health, their jobs, their families, their futures – just about every aspect of all our lives has been affected by the virus. How can employers support employees through these times and help them reconnect with the culture and purpose of the business they work for?

AS: Communication is key and it’s difficult to do that effectively in the current circumstances. As human beings we need to see other human beings; seeing people on Zoom isn’t the same thing. Fourfront Group is a social business, so some of the initiatives we’ve done over the course of the lockdown, such as the quizzes and business updates have been good ways to keep our culture alive.

To be able to retain a positive working culture virtually will depend on how solid it was in the first place. If a business had a weaker culture prior to lockdown, I think it probably would be difficult to strengthen it while teams are working remotely – especially if it’s a long-term scenario.

Speaking with clients who are starting to increasingly implement remote working practices, there are plenty of lessons to be learned about how they managed it and how they have kept their remote workforce connected to the business. This in turn links to the wider conversation about large HQ offices and people travelling into big city environments. Can businesses disperse to regional hubs, so employees don’t have to travel into large cities to be a part of the business’ culture? Employers need to find alternative ways of creating that sense of unity and belonging without everyone having to be under one roof.

GW: A culture to me is a sense of belonging, the relationships you share with others and how you behave as an organisation. An individual’s connection to an organisation and its values will depend on how the company has behaved in a time of crisis, how much they have communicated, how honest they have been, and how they have contributed to society.

Furthermore, shared experiences and values contribute to a positive working culture. Along with many others within the Group, I’m proud to be a call champion volunteer for Fourfront’s Hear4You initiative that was launched in April in partnership with Re-Engage, a charity committed to connecting the lonely and isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Communication is crucial to keeping a culture alive. People have needed more social connection during this time and good managers will keep in touch with their teams by setting up daily virtual huddles, regular catch ups and sociable lunch breaks - I know of one team who are working out together before work! Yes, it needs to be scheduled and virtual, but that sense of connection is there.

KOCM: When I think about our own business, the flexibility and understanding given to us by the Leadership Team and the Board Directors has been so important and welcomed by everybody. Everyone’s home experience has been different, and the flexibility provided, I think, defines our culture as well. We’re all in this together.

AS: People are worried about their health, jobs and futures, and as leaders of a business you need to be honest. This can be tricky because the future is clouded. It’s testimony to the strength of the culture of a business whether it can take bad news as well as good news. There is a lot of bad news around and it’s a difficult time for most people, so it’s important to understand what the individual’s anxieties are and help where you can but to also be honest with them.

It’s imperative not to create a culture or a set of communications that are misleading which in turn can cause distrust towards the business and its leadership. The government’s approach and the resulting doubt as to the truth in what we’re being told is a good example of a communication strategy that has somewhat backfired.

A clean and healthy workplace has both a physical and psychological impact on the people using it. What is your advice in ensuring a clean working environment is maintained?

KOCM: A clean working environment falls into two elements - people management and building management. Companies should strategize within those two spheres and define what they can implement and more importantly what they can control. 

GW: Review your cleaning regime. Agree with your cleaners the increase in frequency of how regularly the workspace will be cleaned. Ensure people clear up after themselves and companies should provide wipes and hand sanitiser to help people keep their space sanitised.

AS: Individuals need to take personal responsibility and use common sense to look after themselves and by doing that they’re looking after other people. Clearly businesses will need to implement enhanced cleaning regimes as well. Again, employers should talk to their landlords as well as their own people to implement effective cleaning procedures.

Communication is key in times of uncertainty. What are your tips for keeping employees informed about current protocols and procedures to keep a safe workspace for all?

GW: Businesses need to implement a pre, during and post communications strategy. Define what you tell people before they return to the office. Be clear about when they are requested to go back to the office, how the ‘return to work’ process will function and what protocols will be in place upon their arrival.

Within the environment itself it’s important to have constant reminders about the protocols in place. Humans respond to different channels so ensure that communications are shared through a digital and physical sense. Think about using signage, internal newsletters, your intranet, H&S Bulletins etc.

If the behavioural outcome isn’t right and individuals aren’t respecting the procedures put in place, then it’s a managerial responsibility to find out why and rectify it. It’s more important than ever to gauge the attitudes and feelings of employees, so I would recommend regular pulse surveys are sent out to understand how people are finding their new working environment and to reassess where necessary.

How do you anticipate COVID-19 impacting workplace design in the short term?

KOCM: In the immediate term it’s about the people and the safety of those people. Any good workplace footprint can be adapted to suit the crisis we’re going through. The beauty of workplace is that it’s flexible and the working environment can be changed to suit the new limitations.  

Some working opportunities will take on a different meaning in the short term. For ourselves and our workspace in Egham, our 1-1 rooms, for example, will now be quiet booths for phone calls. Inevitably, there is going to be a lot less travel to see clients and a reduced number of clients entering our building, which means we’re going to be highly reliant on technology and video conferencing.

AS: To add to Kathryn’s point, meeting rooms moving forward will need to be tech-enabled to be able to communicate to a wider audience than those who are physically in the room. For instance, if a meeting room which previously held 10 people can now only hold five, you need to ensure VC facilities and the software that goes with it – Teams, Zoom, Skype – are installed to be able to use that space efficiently.

Additionally, at least in the short term, teams will continue to work from home, so what does that mean for individuals? Are they working at the kitchen table, a study, or working in the shed at the bottom of the garden? When taking a brief from our clients, there is the opportunity to engage with and consider the 30-40% of their workforce that may be working from home. How can we improve their workspace? That might be with furniture or may just be a particular way of working and its associated protocols and technology.

KOCM: One final point - it’s important to consider timeframes. Currently everyone is thinking about the workplace ‘now’ and what that means for businesses imminently returning to their offices, but what I find interesting is looking towards the future and what’s to come. For example, certain hands-free technology has become available a lot quicker than it would have done if it wasn’t for the COVID-19 pandemic. I would encourage businesses to consider how this technology may shape the future workplace because we certainly won’t be reverting back to the workplaces we knew anytime soon.

Where should I look, or who should I speak to, for further advice on returning to work and creating a safe and healthy workplace?

Our teams at Area and 360 would be happy to provide further advice on your business’ return to work strategy. We are working with clients on a series of initiatives regarding social distancing, hygiene to ensure their staff feel safe.  We have created a Return to Work Guide for our existing clients, which we are happy to share.

Government bodies and the World Health Organisation are the primary sources for guidance on COVID-19 and other health-related issues. Please always refer to government advice and WHO advice for further guidance.

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