A considered approach to the transitional workplace

1st July 2020

Alison O’Reilly, Head of Sustainability, reviews some of Sheppard Robson and ID:SR’s experiences and research on safe workplace reoccupation during COVID-19.

The importance of a considered approach

The world is currently experiencing unprecedented changes and challenges, with a rapid shift to working from home highlighting both opportunities and limitations of working remotely. In tandem, this shift has offered more clarity on the benefits, and indeed the necessity, of having a physical, communal space that brings people together to work.

Now as some restrictions lift and organisations begin transitioning back into the workplace, it is essential to have a pragmatic and personal approach to reoccupation to ensure safety, optimise wellness for employees, and promote a healthy organisational culture.

Working with our clients, we design workplaces that increase productivity and are efficient, creative and desirable. Maximising value through design is our aim on every project and this has been brought into sharp focus in recent months, with the need for a considered approach to occupation never being greater.

Our experience: rethinking 2 million ft2

Since lockdown began, we’ve been working closely with our clients to realise the safe and healthy reoccupation of over 2 million ft2 of workplace, in line with government regulations and ambitious organisational aspirations, from which we have drawn many meaningful insights.

While there is no single solution to the complexities of realising the transitional workplace, by sharing our guidance and key considerations, we hope to bring some clarity on how following a well-considered process ensures successful and scalable reoccupation solutions, whilst maintaining a wider view of a better, more sustainable, and healthier future. Put simply, we are re-envisioning the workplace.

A successful transition mission

The first step in the journey back to the workplace is understanding government phasing and what it means for the transitional workplace and beyond. In the UK, we are currently entering Step 2 of Phase 2, ‘smarter controls.’ It is imperative that any transition strictly follows the national guidance first, and then looks to adjusting buildings.

A rigorous approach to reoccupation should be based on insights gathered from the latest government and industry guidance, client collaborations, occupancy limitations (understood through test-fits and analysis of key limiting factors), and data collected from occupant engagement. A successful transitional strategy mission should include the following four elements: holistic health and wellbeing of people and the organization; clarity in communication; understanding constraints and seizing opportunities; and facilitating engagement and feedback.

Understanding the essentials: 10 key considerations

The key considerations of transitioning back to into the workplace needs to be understood as a three-dimensional discussion, with multiple threads, each requiring consideration throughout the briefing, planning and realisation of reoccupation. The key to unlocking potential is understanding the balance between these physical and non-physical constraints and opportunities.

Our 10 key considerations are:

  1. People: the heart of the solution, their health and well-being is paramount
  2. Building and landlord: navigating multi-tenant towers and complex workplaces
  3. Access and security: moving to and through the workplace
  4. The right kit of parts: establishing needs and augmenting existing amenities
  5. Physical distancing: applying physical distancing to the workplace
  6. Touch-points: assessing and reducing existing high-touch areas
  7. Clear communication: communicating the right message for safety and culture
  8. FM, Cleaning and hygiene: strategy and commissioning
  9. HR: policies and procedures
  10. IT: physical and digital capacities and sequencing

A ‘people first’ approach: transmission routes and physical distancing

The spread of COVID-19 is most likely to happen when there is close contact (within 2 metres) with an infected person. It is likely that the risk increases the longer someone has close contact with an infected person. Respiratory secretions (droplets) containing the virus are likely to be the most probable means of transmission; these are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

There are two routes people could become infected:

  1. Secretions can be directly transferred into the mouths or noses of people who are nearby (within 2m) or possibly could be inhaled into the lungs.
  2. It is possible that someone may become infected by touching a person, a surface or object that has been contaminated with respiratory secretions and then touching their own mouth, nose, or eyes (such as shaking hands or touching doorknobs, then touching own face).

This is why physical distancing at work is not a matter of personal choice, but a collective requirement to keep everybody safe.

Occupancy insights and limiting factors

The keynote element to transitioning back to the workplace under the current guidance is the number of staff who at any one time can occupy the building. At the start, each workplace will be very different to when it was left, and one of the most evident things when you enter your workplace for the first time will be the much smaller number of people present.

Based on numerous studies by our workplace team, we have found that an initial return to the workplace (when observing 2 meter physical distancing) will yield an average initial occupancy of approximately 20% of the total possible occupancy. This is an approximate guide that will vary depending workplace culture, location and sector.

As per the updated government guidance on physical distancing, issued on June 24, following the Prime Minister’s announcement on June 23, current physical distancing measures should be maintained in workplaces, when open, and where people are unable to work from home: ‘workplaces should, where possible, ensure employees can maintain a two metre distance from others.’

In addition to the number of available work setting available based on physical distancing guidelines, other key limiting factors need to be considered when testing the space. The top five spatial limiting factors for the workplace are: access (including lift strategy), floor layouts, circulation, WC access, and IT facilities.

Each workplace will require a bespoke approach that considers the many pieces to the re-occupancy puzzle, including people, place, activities and process.

A considered approach

In this current context, concentrating on changing the physical space is just one piece of a very complex jigsaw. We need to work to engage with everyone—from the FM team, staff, to Human Resources—to find best way forward to minimise risk and ensure employees have maximum benefit from being in the office. This inclusive process enables the inner workings of the workplace to not only respond to physical distancing requirements, but to fit the culture of an organisation.

Looking further ahead: 'turbocharged evolution'

These unprecedented times have given time to reflect. And while the office has always been in a state of continuous evolution, this unbelievable experiment is likely to turbocharge some changes we were already seeing in the workplace such as increased flexibility in a move away from presenteeism towards productivity and growing emphasis on fostering collaboration and promoting organisational culture. While we need to be responsive to the current threat of COVID-19 in the reopening of our workplaces, we should be simultaneously looking further ahead, considering how our workplaces can be even better, more sustainable, and healthier. By approaching the transitional office while having a clear path to a future vision, organisations can embed their long-term aspirations into their short-and medium-term planning, not just reacting to current concerns, but embracing possibilities that might otherwise not be captured.

The above article is meant to introduce some of the considerations and themes that are shaping this very challenging and turbulent time in workplace design. We think a complete strategy for reoccupying your office should not be a checklist, but rather established from a deep understanding of your business and its culture. If you would like to continue the conversation about how our experience can help your organisation, please contact Mira Doheny.

Read more about ID:SR and Sheppard Robson's thinking on reoccupation at out Covid-19 Restart Portal.

Alison O'Reilly

Head of Sustainability