Workplace Design During Covid-19

As we adapt to living and working while the pandemic continues, the question becomes about legacy. Will Covid-19 leave a significant lasting legacy on the design of our working environment and how will that manifest itself in office right across the UK.

Tim Pullen of Ashlar Projects

Tim Pullen is managing director of Ashlar Projects, a leading design and build practice specialising in workplace design for small to medium sized companies, through to large corporate organizations in both the capital, as well as throughout the UK. The company provides a full-service solution to design, space planning, refurbishment, and fit out. We're chatting to Tim about his experiences of business during COVID-19 and how the future is shaping up for workplaces outside of the capital.



Can you tell us some of the most recent projects you've been involved in outside of London and how has the pandemic affected your business?

The pandemic hasn't really affected our business and we've continued to operate; albeit when the first lockdown occurred, the supply chain shut down, so supplies became difficult, and we had to close projects down for about a three- or four-week period.

That said, we've definitely seen a shift away from fit out and refurbishment, but you've got much more work in logistics, distribution, and manufacturing, which have continued to operate through the pandemic. These sectors have been the areas where we've been working most over the last 12 months though I think businesses are a bit more confident about the future now and people are getting ready to go back to the office. So, we’ve seen an upturn in office fit-out enquiries, with collaborative working a common theme. We've not seen too much downsizing at all. People have maintained their office space, which is interesting.  

And is that mainly a regional approach or true of the city too?

I think when you're tied into a lease, or you own a property, you're not going to look to get rid of your real estate immediately. There are examples where I've seen various businesses that have decided to downsize, but there, again, a number of businesses we've seen continuing to operate and continuing to grow, and they're maintaining their office space. If anything, they probably need more with social distancing measures coming into play. But yeah, I think, in general, businesses have continued to operate and are doing well from what I can see.

Have you seen clients approach space design in a different way because of COVID-19?

The result of a lockdown during this pandemic has definitely seen an impact on business psychology. Employees, managers and owners have enjoyed the flexibility of working from home and where possible, want to continue that. We saw the introduction of video conferencing far more at the start of the lockdown last year. Although it's allowed us to work remotely and communicate, it's not allowed us to build rapport, trust and teamwork. So, I think there's a blend between people that want to return to the office full-time and those that want to retain the benefits of working from home.

The office is not just a place of work, its somewhere people want to socialise and engage with fellow workers. And so, workplace design is moving down the route of agile working with a 'home from home' feel. We're designing a lot more breakout spaces, softer seating options for individuals or group work, and project tables fitted out with media screens so that you can involve employees that are not in the office. Agile workspaces are where people are looking, trying to bring that 'home from home' feel back into the workplace.

Ashlar Projects-Media Table
Ashlar Projects-zoned canteen

From your perspective, that idea of engagement is really going to be central to the office moving forward. Would that be a fair assessment?

We’ve all used Zoom and Teams and they are great tools and certainly we can also use it for more than just conferences. As an example, we have used it for site audits, but I do think that everyone - owners, managers and employees - want to get back to the office because it's not just a place of work. It's somewhere to socialise, to feel valued and to contribute.

And certainly, where a lot of the younger generation are cooped up in small flats, they really do want to get back to the workplace. People may see the benefits of working from home, but there’s also a lot of distractions. I really do feel for people that had to home-school, and that's not going to make you productive, working nine to five. But I think the world of work is changing.

People working from home can switch on and off during the working day. And this may well see them put different hours in, starting earlier or catching up later in the evening. People want a sense of belonging and to come back to the office. Whether it's full time or whether it's part time, organizations would just have to look at managing that. I think the 'nine to five' is blurred around the edges now.

From a space design perspective, this idea of open spaces presents certain challenges such as acoustics or people wanting to feel they can be productive amid all the buzz. How do you overcome those sorts of issues?

A lot of the issues with moving back to the office is now focused on the different types of acoustics that you can use and designing the space so people can work in a safe environment. Certainly, the number one issue for people coming back is the understanding that the workplace is going to be safe for them to work within, so that's looking at air quality, cleanliness, physical distancing and boundaries.

We're also building into the design private areas such as acoustically attenuated booths where people can work privately, take telephone calls privately and not interfere with others around them. The whole space is being redesigned in terms of looking at how to make employees more productive.

Do you think that companies are looking to respond to that challenge of employee wellbeing or is it about adapting to the impacts of new working models?

All businesses are defined by their employees - they're the ambassadors of your brand and the cogs that make business tick. And so, I think proactive and forward-thinking organisations will be constantly focused on employee wellbeing.

If you think about employee retention, there's a huge cost involved with the search selection, recruitment and training of new employees, as well as how long they need to become effective. For this reason, it's good business sense to be acutely aware of employee wellbeing and to retain the best staff.

As I said earlier, we've been doing a lot more in the logistics and distribution area. Those businesses tend to be located out of town, away from facilities, and therefore, employers need to provide a great working environment with good facilities. We've recently redesigned a canteen; zoning it off and bringing in biophilic design, which helps with employee productivity and bringing that 'home from home' feel.

If you can get a competitive advantage by refurbishing or fitting out your workplace where people have to travel to somewhere to work with a limited pool of people, then you're going to be in a far better position than your competitors.

So, are you finding a progression towards a more city-like office environment in regional areas?

Where you have industrial estates with large warehouse logistics operations, there's not a lot of supporting businesses around there. As a forward thinking and progressive employer, you would want to keep your team on site and well provided for, so there's a lot more going into the thinking and design around how to make the workplaces more attractive for people to enhance productivity, creativity, and innovation.

The design of the space is becoming more agile. We talked about the canteen recently, which obviously gets heavy footfall during the lunch period and the break times. The rest of the time it is less used, so we've introduced banquette seating and softer seating areas to be used as a space for more informal collaborative meetings, away from the office environment, over a cup of coffee. And biophilic design; virtually all designs over the last 12 to 18 months have involved the use of plants and other cues. There's a definite link between productivity, creativity, and wellbeing.

That kind of nature influenced design, is that something you see as a trend, or does it have a meaningful impact on how people perceive their working environment?

I think we'll have to wait and see with that one, but sustainability is essential now in terms of the choice of materials we use for all businesses and waste management streams, and that's intrinsically linked with the environment, so it's very much what people want to see.

When we're using graphics on walls, for instance, we're using a product now that's made from a hundred percent recycled plastic bottles, and there’s furniture and finishes that use recycled materials. So, I think sustainability, the environment and greenery are all intrinsically linked. Certainly, it's very hot topic at this moment in time.

Getting back to the regional aspect of your business, are we going to see companies set up more 'hub' offices in regional towns?

I've not necessarily seen that, but I think organisations are going to have to look at how they bring their staff back into their organizations safely. We’ve not seen significant downsizing in head count and whereas desking would have previously been high density, now that people are having to look at the physical boundaries and distancing rules there's going to be a definite shift between flexible agile working at different times of the day. Whether that means people are going to go more to 'hub' working or not, I don't know.

The trend that I have seen in offices outside of major cities is for coworking spaces. Where clients are coming into organisations for meetings or visits, business lounges are being provided so that following a visit, clients can go and work on rather than travel back. Regionally, we are traveling a lot more than in city centres, where density sees people able to move more freely than is possible in the Midlands or the North, for instance.

That's good business; if you can keep your client on site and allow them to work it's helping to develop engagement, but also giving them the space to be able to work freely and privately. We've seen an increase in acoustically attenuated where people can make private telephone calls without the fear of any calls being overheard. Two projects we've got on right now, both have co-working spaces being built into the design.

DigiHaul-Ashlar Special Projects-Carpet Tiles-Art Style-Basalt-Hatfield-Office Flooring
Ashlar Projects – Coworking area with cubicles

What's the one lasting thing the pandemic has taught you about office design?

I think this pandemic has been transformational. In the early days, when we were all locked down and forced to work from home, we used technology; video conferencing to communicate and collaborate. I'm not so sure that's the panacea that some would have you think it is. Only human contact builds trust and shared values and so companies need to have people back in offices.

Also, people want to come back to the office. There are some that would prefer to work from home, and I think research has shown that, pre-pandemic, that was somewhere in the region of 15% of the overall workforce and now I think research is showing that at least 50% of all employees want to come back to the office, if not on a full-time basis, certainly part-time and flexible.

So, where organisations can retain the benefits of working from home but bring people back into an office that’s a safe environment designed around their wellbeing with smarter facilities that allow them to work productively, they will gain competitive advantage. This is just as true for industrial estate businesses as it is for those located in city centres.

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