Comment: Returning to the office during Covid-19

29th September 2021 | 4 min read

By LABS Chief Commercial Officer Matt Watts

Although it is still too early in the battle against Covid-19 to predict what else may happen with the pandemic, I fully believe we will return to pre-Covid norms at some point in the not-too-distant future.

However, employees have made it clear that they do want their return to the office to be worthwhile for them. This means businesses need to carefully consider the experience they are inviting workers back into, so that people do want to return.

And with the government putting more onus on businesses to manage COVID in their workplace themselves rather than rely on government guidance, creating and providing clear guidelines and visual cues in offices as well as effectively communicating what the company is doing to mitigate risk, will help everyone feel more secure and build trust as employees begin to return.

Things like leading by example and demonstrating common sense cannot be undervalued. Employees want to know that businesses understand that the pandemic is far from over and are still taking COVID seriously. For example, at LABS we are keeping visual cues within our buildings to encourage the maintenance of good hygiene, while also sustaining the high cleaning standards throughout our buildings, and recommending the wearing of masks and social distancing in crowded areas. We also request that anyone feeling unwell should stay at home and notify the general manager of their building where needed.

New ways of working, or are they?

Empathy is key as we move back to the office, while infection rates are still volatile. Companies need to balance what is right for them and what is right for their people as a business. Hybrid working is likely to feel necessary in the short to medium term for many.

But we should also be honest and not pretend that hybrid working is a COVID phenomenon. At LABS, our occupancy patterns for an average week have always fluctuated based on seasonality, holidays, meetings, even the weather, and most importantly the given day in the week.  We have always seen peak usage of our spaces on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday whereas a Friday can be quieter, but not always, in a number of assets.  We do our best to adapt and respond to the changing needs of our clients and their occupancy patterns.

Flexible working has been around for decades, and many companies already had established policies or offered flexible hours to suit a particular culture or workplace strategy. If your company does have a policy in place, it may just require more grassroots influence so all employees will feel supported.  This is a healthy topic of conversation to have across all businesses and all parties will need to adapt to suit.  We need to be clear, there is not one formula that works for all.

Management teams, I expect, will be busy deciding what activities need to be conducted in person and then working backward from there to create a list of priorities, while discussing with teams to find out who would prefer to be in the office and why.

It is imperative that employees feel like their voices are heard, even if not everyone will be pleased with the decisions taken, because this will enable the building and maintaining of trust as we continue to navigate the current climate of uncertainty.

What we are seeing is an increasing demand for occupiers to provide more services and amenities, while also paying attention to safety standards, communal spaces and outdoor spaces. If social distancing rules continue to be minimal, those that have taken the initiative to invest in high quality solutions and spaces will continue to thrive as we navigate toward the end of the pandemic.

Prioritising company culture

For many people, the loss of social contact and interaction has fractured their connections with colleagues and their work.

So, now is also the time for businesses to discover more creative ways that teams can cross-collaborate to gently ease employees back in and make the processes feel more normal again, rather than attempting to go back to a pre-COVID routine immediately.

Finding a way to embed company values is crucial to this. Every company has its own ethos so this will look different for everyone, but the following questions need to be considered: What will raise morale for my team and the wider company? How can people be celebrated for their work and their contributions made to feel valued? What social activities would I want to go back to the office to attend?

While we must still exercise caution, creating an environment which people can enjoy is likely to encourage employees to want to come back to the office more in the longer term.  The office isn’t just about work; it is a place to have fun, to collaborate and to engage with each other, all of which benefits us in immeasurable ways.

Published version on CoStar