The office will continue to be a vital part of our lives

10th June 2020

In an interview with Dezeen's Tom Ravenscroft, Helen Berresford, Partner and Head of ID:SR, discusses how the coronavirus pandemic will not kill the office, but instead we will still see some striking changes when we return to work.

Read the full interview here.

Tom Ravenscroft: Is the physical workplace under threat?

Helen Berresford: Put simply, no. The office will continue to be a vital part of most of our lives even though working from home has proved effective over the last three months.

People will still gravitate towards the office for many reasons. We are hearing a lot of positive work from home stories and it has worked well for a lot of organisations, including ours. But there are a lot of people out there working in stressful, cramped conditions at home that you don't hear from.

The modern office is a great leveller in comparison: everyone has the similar amount of space, the same seat to sit on, similar facilities and technology. This is probably why, when we see the results of many recent staff surveys, the majority of people want to get back into the office but with a greater degree of flexibility than ever before.

Tom Ravenscroft: What are the key barriers for organisations in returning to the office?

Helen Berresford: Planning a designated space where people are going to sit and do their work is pretty straight forward but it's the shared spaces such as entrances, lifts and amenities which are problematic.

Some spaces, like areas designed specifically for collaborative work, will likely be closed initially, while other essential shared spaces will need to rethought. Whilst the drivers for return to the office are led by a need to reconnect and collaborate face-to-face, we will still need to supplement this return to the office with stronger digital connections when in the office whilst physical distancing prevails.

Tom Ravenscroft: What does that rethinking entail?

Helen Berresford: There are many, many considerations. Lifts will be restricted to one or two people and possibly supplemented by the use PPE gear; meeting rooms will be used as personal offices while catch-ups continue to be done digitally facilities management strategies will create a suitable cleaning rota for toilets; routes around the office will be created to minimise chances of coming together.

People normally focus on physical space when talking about the obstacles of going back to the office; however, there's a key managerial element to it as well.

If, at the start, there's only 20 per cent of people occupying the office at one time, who should be in the office? And when? And who do they need to be working alongside to make their trip into the office worthwhile? Using the 20 per cent wisely is essential and mapping out new patterns of work is going to be a challenging task for many organisations.

Tom Ravenscroft: And what is the designer's role in this?

Helen Berresford: Well I think designers can't just concentrate on changing the physical space as this is just one piece of a very complex jigsaw. In my view, the architect or designer should be talking to everyone – the FM team, the staff, the HR team… even the unions to decide on what is the best way to minimise risk and make sure people are benefitting from being in the office. By being central to everything about the office, we can shape the inner workings of the office and, with it, the culture of the organisation.

Tom Ravenscroft: Does the pandemic mean that lots of thinking about office design for the past 10/20 years needs to be undone?

Helen Berresford: Initially, the designer will need to rethink what the office is about. We have spent a long-time developing workplaces focused on bringing people together, sharing spaces and resources, and letting people move freely between a range of work settings.

But these workplace values will have to be paused when we first go back to the office and a new way of thinking adopted whilst fulfilling that desire to get together in the culture of an organisation.

Tom Ravenscroft: How will office design be impacted long-term by the pandemic?

Helen Berresford: The office is bound to change but that's nothing new – it's been adapting to lifestyles and changes in corporate culture for a long time now.

It's so tempting to make bold claims about revolutions in office design but I think we are more likely to see accelerated evolution of the themes we were seeing in the workplace before the pandemic. For example, we were seeing a convergence between office and the hospitality sector before the pandemic, creating spaces that acted as a magnet for talent and welcomed people in. This magnetic quality, alongside flexibility and a choice of how and where to work, is going to be more important than ever to keep companies productive and their culture strong.

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

Helen Berresford RIBA

Partner, Head of ID:SR