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Don’t ditch the office post-lockdown – shared spaces are priceless

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The best ideas come from spontaneous conversations and accidental collisions in shared working spaces, says Here East CEO, Gavin Poole

There is no doubt that the ‘normal’ way of working life will be changed irrevocably in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While remote working will likely become more ingrained into working culture for many businesses going forward, we need to acknowledge that there is still very much an integral role for the office in the future of work and our cities – even if it looks slightly different to the traditional skyscraper city-centre offices we are currently familiar with.

Social distancing is now a necessary behaviour – but this must not come at the cost of human interaction and collaboration within industries. Some of the best ideas and innovations come from spontaneous conversations and accidental collisions in shared working spaces – something which planned digital connections and video conferencing tools can supplement but not entirely replace.

So, as the government’s easing of lockdown restrictions continues, rather than consigning the office space to a relic of the past, we need to consider how architecture and design solutions can adapt to meet the needs of providing secure offices and ensure safety in the face of other future scenarios.

Prioritising space which simultaneously promotes diverse communities coming together and interacting in person, and still guarantees their safety while doing so, will be key.

The new thinking in no way means all existing office blocks need to be torn down and built again from scratch

Embracing new thinking around the concept of space is going to be instrumental in achieving this. Typical open offices may need to reduce the amount of staff on a floor by 30-50 per cent to physically accommodate social distancing, according to Arjun Kaicker, the co-head of analytics and insights at Zaha Hadid Architects.

The new thinking in no way means all existing office blocks need to be torn down and built again from scratch. Retrofitting pre-existing spaces is a sustainable way of future-proofing working spaces.

Existing offices can be reconfigured in a manner which gives the space an amount of flexibility and the ability to scale as needed by the business in the long term, while ensuring social distancing regulations can be fully adhered to when necessary. For example, an aspect of reconfiguring existing spaces could be implementing dedicated spaces for client-facing interactions and spaces reserved only for employees.

Many companies have come to the realisation that entire workforces do not need to be present in the office five days a week

Collaboration between sectors can also play a great role in establishing the future of the office. Generosity of common space across the business communities will be greatly beneficial in creating shared working spaces which meet the needs of a range of organisations in a flexible and future-proof manner – this is especially pertinent seeing as many companies have come to the realisation that entire workforces do not need to be present in the office five days a week to maintain productivity.

Low-rise architecture has significant advantages over high-rise structures in facilitating social distancing, a consideration to bear in mind when retrofitting pre-existing buildings or constructing from scratch. Here East, the retrofit tech and innovation campus, follows this example.

Alongside the over-arching architecture of the office space, strong communication channels also sit at the heart of ensuring employees trust it is safe to return to the office. Implementing clear graphics and signage throughout the office which aid employees in clearly understanding and following the regulations supporting social distancing is instrumental in this strategy.

It’s also an ongoing conversation which must go both ways – engaging closely with employees to understand their needs and concerns which will enable them to return to the office with confidence.

It’s not just the architecture and design of our offices we need to look to – but that of the urban landscape more broadly. Transport for London has estimated that due to social distancing, capacity on the Tube will be reduced to 15-20 per cent and 20-25 per cent on buses. Meanwhile, its models suggest a doubling of car use in central London if nothing is done in the mobility space.

Overhauling city infrastructures will allow us to build in the structures which prioritise socially distanced and sustainable modes of commuting, from pedestrians and cyclists to e-scooters. The UK government announced last month it is fast-tracking trials of e-scooters. While this is a welcome step forward, it is vital that transport regulations ensure cyclists, pedestrians and electric scooters can safely coexist with other modes of established transport as part of a long-term vision for city mobility.

Admittedly, the value of being physically onsite with your team is sector-specific. But for some industries – especially those with a creative remit – in-person collaboration is truly priceless when it comes to driving genuine innovation and sparking new ideas.

The office space can – and will – adapt to ensure these essential ingredients for ground-breaking ideas can continue in a safe and productive manner.

Gavin Poole is CEO of Here East

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