As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread and affect businesses on a global scale, new insights are emerging rapidly on its immediate and long-term impact. Since the governmental restrictions and furlough in the United Kingdom have been set in place in a bid to curb the outbreak and protect the workforce, numerous British businesses have released COVID-19 contingency plans including compulsory home-working policies, and some have closed sites and banned external visitors.
Read our blog interview with Adrian Cowley, Managing Director at Your Workspace - Vecos allied partner in the United Kingdom, revealing how the pandemic is affecting the British market and how it will shape the workplaces in the UK for the next period.
Can you tell us who you are and about your role within Your Workspace?
I am Adrian Cowley, one of the co-founders and directors of Your Workspace(formally Euro Workspace), we are leading providers and manufacturers of storage solutions and have become known as matter experts for our knowledge when it comes to providing smart technology for storage requirements.
We partner with Vecos and integrate their technology into our product to provide a growing number of global institutions with a world-class solution for storage management and control.
What is currently the impact of the coronavirus in your region and especially on workplaces?
The office is where everything in terms of collaboration and interaction takes place. Even though you get a lot of to-dos done more efficiently when working from home and might get more distracted from your work by colleagues at the office – being in the office has a social function. I think a lot of employees are currently struggling to maintain the same level of interaction while working from home compared to working at the office. That's probably the balance of team collaboration.
Another trend we are seeing is that companies are becoming more cautious in terms of investment. Meaning, they are paying more attention to the price tag rather than looking at it as a return on investment.
From a contamination point of view and crowd management, there will be lots of new challenges. Especially for large companies, that, even when working agile and flexible, will still have to manage more than fifteen hundred people in the same place maintaining a 2-metre distance from each other.
Now, we all face the question of how to design zones and incorporate social distancing in the workplace as this might become more of a norm.
London, which is one of our main markets, is a high-density city, like New York. In high-density cities, the coronavirus is very much an IT issue because of the closeness of people. For example, will people have more virtual meetings than face to face if that meant they would sit in a confined space? I think overall people will have more virtual meetings than they did and that we’re going to see that virtual meetings are more efficient than face to face meetings.
The other thing we will need to take into consideration is social distancing actually in the workplace itself and how to implement this. With this in mind, we also need to look at transportation and travelling to work on the tube or bus and really ask do I need to be in the office.
There is talk about depression and a recession, but if people work from home and it’s a more productive workforce, will this help accelerate any kind of recession recovery.
So, I think that the recession will come and there may be a slow recovery. And there will be a lot of people who will think twice before jumping on a plane to the other side of the continent.
How are real estate managers and architects reacting to the current coronavirus situation?
In terms of investments in real estate, we will start to see the consequences. Companies will think about whether they really need another building or if they can utilize the current space as it is. Employers need to think about how they can help their employees build an office at home and facilitate that instead of providing even more common spaces in offices. And how to accommodate 400 employees daily, instead of 4000 people. This will have a huge impact on how offices are being designed. This crisis forces companies to look at what they need to do better and make improvements based on their current resources.
I think the negative of the coronavirus will be that a lot of companies will look at the numbers and start to cut back on people. No one knows how long the current situation with the coronavirus is going to last and will it then come back again in six months, twelve months, et cetera.
How is remote working and working-from-home affecting companies in your region? And how are companies responding to this?
Looking at it from Your Workspace and our strategy before the lockdown was to set up two separate offices to help reduce any risk for the staff and limit contact between teams.
If you look at the wider context in the UK, we are probably very similar to several other larger companies that have already adopted a remote working platform as part of their strategy in the last few years. They are now finding that, with people being forced to work mainly from home, they've already had the experience of flexible working and the fact that they can do that.
Being in the office is more about the social element that people want to go back to, to be able to speak to people face to face and have real-life interactions. Right now, big companies like Deloitte, that have already adopted agile working and implemented new activity-based offices, are focussing on moving forward. They will be taking more people, rather than losing people.
In this process, it is going to make them work smarter rather than harder as well. If you look at the design of their offices and what they are trying to do at the moment: they are trying to squeeze more people into less space. This will have consequences for their open-plan offices as well as for sanitization and crowd management regulations they will have to meet.
What will be the "new normal" when it comes to workplaces?
The interesting thing we are seeing is that people when working from home, they do not have proper facilities and a working space and are working even from their dressing tables. If employees cannot work from home, then that's an issue as it’s just physical space, the physical space they require for a home-office. If you're looking at technology at home, the broadband speeds et cetera are adequate and can cope with the new demand.
Where people were having the option of working from home, some decided to come to the office or worked two or three days a week in the office. I think that willingness to work from home may depend on flexibility. The other thing I think is that maybe this is a British psychological thing. Maybe the older generation feels that when people work from home it is because they don't want to do a full day's work, but this is change in trust has to play a key part for both employee and employer alike.
Do you think this will accelerate the implementation of a flexible workplace strategy?
In terms of the overall workplace and the workplace strategy, I think one of the things we have actually learned through the crisis is that at least a third, maybe half of our people are very good at working from home. They have proven to be quite productive, and that is partially also thanks to the fact that we already had tools in place such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, etc.
I think one of the reasons why some employers are not successful in introducing agile working is because they did not take their employees through change management training. I think now, because people have had the experience of working from home, companies will embrace flexible working. I think people will see the many benefits. Everybody has been through the endurance of this working-from-home experiment and we are all now recognizing and experiencing that people can balance their work with their family life.
We feel, from a business point of view, that we’re moving forward in the current crisis. I think it's going to make people really re-think and re-evaluate their agile working and workplace strategy again. We constantly see that they've reduced the number of their desks, but probably in 90% of the cases there was no definitive storage solution. Most of the people are using lockers and space in a more traditional way and are using a manual combination or a keypad lock. Companies will now actually start to look further into storage facilities and will actively try to adopt the same kind of strategy in storage as they have for the desking.
The benefit of a smart locker solution like the one from Vecos is that users can open lockers with the app, reducing contact. This will accelerate the process of people opting for a mobile device to access the services in and around the building, rather than touching everything with a card or their fingers. The touchless or contactless device will become the real requirement for an office space, increasing performance, providing data and reducing risk to the employee- it’s a win-win situation.
What tips do you have for management teams regarding flexible working and managing this period of remote working?
- Inherent to allowing people to work in a flexible way and be able to combine work in the office with work-from-home, is that it still needs to come from the top. It needs to be an integrated part of the company’s culture and translated to the workplace strategy.
- From a group working point of view, it is surprising to see how people are trying to keep their colleagues motivated in nice ways. In this crisis, I think that you'll probably also find who are the team players and who are not.
- I think in terms of making flexible and remote working work, there must be clear communication and clarity about the expectations of the management.
- Another tip is to reach out to other chief executives, HR managers or workplaces to learn from each other and to benefit from their learnings and experiences.
- Engage with your employees and discuss how they experience this period, what they have learnt from it and which benefits they would like to add to their working situation. Working on these improvements bottom-up, the company will benefit it from it, too, and will see better a return on investment. And that's a big win for everybody.