Preparing for the post-pandemic workplace

Three experts share their views on how the new working world will impact on design, technology and psychology.

These are just some of the unfamiliar aspects of working life that are likely to become commonplace when workplaces across the country begin to tentatively reopen.

We’ll need to get used to not coming into physical contact with each other, too. As long as social distancing measures continue to dictate our movements, workplaces will be touch-free zones. Handshaking and hugging will be prohibited, while coffee catch-ups with co-workers will need to be at a safe distance. Breakout areas could be off limits, and companies may need stricter rules around meetings, limiting their length and restricting their size.

Indeed, going to work may feel at first like a far more solitary experience than it did before the pandemic hit. With the majority of the population having now figured out how best to work from home, employers – knowing that work can continue remotely – will be wary of bringing back their entire workforce in one go.

It seems much more likely that people will be brought back in phases and in small groups to allow for social distancing. Companies that are keen to establish the ‘new normal’ working patterns could implement rota systems and more flexible working arrangements, thereby ensuring offices contain only a handful of staff at any one time.

No one knows yet exactly what their new normal will look like, but increasingly it’s clear that the coronavirus may have changed the look and feel of workplaces forever. To gain a better understanding of how workplaces and office environments are being prepared for life after the pandemic, we asked three experts for their views.

Office layout and design

Andrew Saunders is managing director at Vibe Business Interiors, a Hampshire-based commercial interiors company. He says that most businesses are likely to adapt their workplaces to enable greater social distancing, but that the majority will look to avoid expensive large-scale office refurbishments. Instead, many could opt for more cost-effective and shorter-term solutions:

“To make returning to offices safer, companies can buy screens that clip on to each desk. That would enable a bank of eight desks to be filled by eight employees as normal, because each person would have some protection. Without protection, and to keep everyone safe, you’d probably only be able to fit two people on a bank of eight desks – each sat at either end. If your office usually has a high headcount, screens could be a way to maximise desk space without changing the fabric of the building.

“Some furniture manufacturers have started coating finished products in chemicals that are shown to be more resistant to coronavirus, the idea being that the virus will only live a short time on these enhanced surfaces, instead of hours or even days on traditional office furniture.

Companies can buy screens that clip on to each desk. That would enable a bank of eight desks to be filled by eight employees as normal, because each person would have some protection

Andrew Saunders, managing director, Vibe Business Interiors

“There have been some government guidelines around workplaces, and furniture manufacturers were some of the first businesses to embrace them. But they’re interpreting the rules in their own way and making products to satisfy their interpretations."

“Because the rules aren’t yet clear enough, any business that does decide to buy all new furniture in an attempt to get staff back quicker risks spending lots of money on what could prove to be unsafe and unusable furniture in a few months’ time. At any rate, many businesses can’t afford new furniture or office redesigns at the moment, so many are choosing to simply wait until the government tells us it’s safe to go back."

“Most businesses seem to be on standby, waiting to see what others do. Employers have a duty of care towards staff to provide suitable working environments, but there needs to be more direction on what counts as suitable.”

Workplace technology

Jonathan Harlock is director of monitoring control at analytic software and hardware specialists Sypro. He helps companies install smart building technology that allows employers to ensure staff and clients are maintaining social distancing. Here, Harlock outlines the technologies that are likely to be important in the post-coronavirus workplace:

“One area that will be in demand is thermal imaging, as companies will want to know if people are running a temperature before they enter a building. Another will be movement detection. Enforcing social distancing is likely to be the biggest challenge in the workplace, so any tech that can sense movements will be highly sought after."

“A lot of offices already have elements of this – like meeting rooms where the lights turn on as you enter. But most of these technologies only detect movement. You also need them to identify how close people are to one another, and to track movements and store data, if they’re to solve the issue of social distancing."

“An area of future development will be more cost-effective methods of providing people with social-distancing tags. These would be wearables that people walk around with, similar to a Fitbit, that connect to ‘base stations’ dotted around the building."

“The technology already exists but it’s expensive. A big challenge going forward will be to ensure companies can return to workplaces at an affordable level.”

Behaviour and psychology

Sir Cary Cooper is a professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, University of Manchester. He explains that long periods of remote working followed by periods of enforced social distancing could have profound effects on the way people behave in the workplace, and the ways teams communicate.

“We can’t say for sure exactly how behaviour will be affected by socially distanced workplaces, but it will be. People are likely to return to work slowly and not in such large numbers, before beginning to disperse and work more collectively. If co-workers are wary of getting too close, that could have a negative effect on team building."

“It’s important that staff aren’t fearful of going back to the workplace. They need to know senior managers have planned for their return. Companies should be doing reinduction training, so that staff get a flavour of what their office environment will be like. There should be clear-cut ideas about how meetings will be organised: for example, people need to know what a socially distanced meeting looks like. All this will be necessary to quell people’s fears about risking their health."

“Another important difference will be people working much more flexibly and remotely than before. This will require a new and different style of management. In the corporate world, there are already lots of technically competent managers, but do they understand how to build remote teams, or how to ensure that staff can cope with their workloads while working flexibly?"

“We need to retrain all our line managers, from shop floor to top floor, on their social and interpersonal skills. They’ll need to be more socially aware and sensitive to people’s circumstances, and keep in touch with them more, knowing they won’t see them as often face to face."

“It’ll be highly important for businesses to manage employees’ insecurities, so creating a well-being culture is now an imperative. It should also be a boardroom issue. There should be a chief welfare officer on the board of every medium-sized and large company. Firms were starting to move in this direction before coronavirus hit, but now it’s become essential”

This material is published by NatWest Group plc (“NatWest Group”), for information purposes only and should not be regarded as providing any specific advice. Recipients should make their own independent evaluation of this information and no action should be taken, solely relying on it. This material should not be reproduced or disclosed without our consent. It is not intended for distribution in any jurisdiction in which this would be prohibited. Whilst this information is believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified by NatWest Group and NatWest Group makes no representation or warranty (express or implied) of any kind, as regards the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor does it accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage arising in any way from any use made of or reliance placed on, this information. Unless otherwise stated, any views, forecasts, or estimates are solely those of NatWest Group, as of this date and are subject to change without notice. Copyright © NatWest Group. All rights reserved.

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