Webinar discusses how workplaces will be transformed by the pandemic

EMPLOYERS WILL have to adapt their workplaces to meet the radically altered demands of the post Covid-19 workforce, the latest Voice of Authority webinar heard.

The discussion on Thursday, April 30, looked at the challenges facing millions as they adapt to working from home during the pandemic lockdown, and how this is likely to impact businesses when they emerge from the crisis.

James Finnis, head of south east office markets at JLL, told the webinar he expects to see “much more flexibility in work patterns in terms of how people do their jobs” in the future.

“Part of the change coming out of this is increased adaption and flexibility of employers, in terms of what workplaces look like”, he said, referring to different shift patterns, the use of space, and how many employees are based in the traditional office.

But he added that the office environment still provides a key resource to firms. “Why do we have big break-out areas? Because I want to bump into that individual, come up with a new idea. It’s going to drive new ideas and the next piece of business”, he said.

Deirdra Armsby, director of place shaping and town planning at Westminster City Council, said her local authority has embraced the enforced changes “wholesale”, and told viewers of the webinar that she expects to see a dramatic shift in the types of companies operating.

“There will be businesses that don’t survive this and new ones coming in their place with very different operating models and cultures that we all have to adapt to”, she said. Armsby also warned that physical interaction and knowledge exchange is “very valuable” and cannot be fully recreated on a digital platform, adding: “Just because you can work from home five days a week doesn’t mean we should all leap to that model.”

Stephen Platts, director of regeneration at Southwark Council, agreed that the physical office still had a vital function, but that “the design of the office will change”.

“There will absolutely be more people working from home, but offices are still permanent bases for a large number of employees”, he said, adding that many employees have found their homes are not acceptable workspaces.

“There are limitations on people’s homes for working from home”, he said. “Homes were not designed as offices, it’s not great if you are at the kitchen table, bent over a kitchen table, kitchen chair, for seven hours at a time. More than one person in an open plan living room trying to work from home. We have to consider not only people’s mental wellbeing but physical wellbeing, and awareness of environments that are not acceptable.”

Looking to the future, the speakers debated the role of permitted development in the post Covid-19 landscape with Finnis saying it could play a role in bringing empty buildings back into use if good standards were met. Armsby and Platts agreed that planning standards would be important.

Finnis suggested that proximity technology on mobile phones could play a key role in ensuring social distancing as people return to work, but Armsby said using the London Underground network would pose a significant problem for many workers.

“It’s very hard to imagine how you can social distance on tubes without it taking a huge amount of time to get to work”, she said, adding that areas of London that had not seemed viable options for workspaces may now be reconsidered.

The next Voice of Authority webinar is on Thursday, May 7, at 11am and will talk about how digital consultation methods are being deployed to support transport, housing and regeneration projects. To catch up with the last webinar, read its report and sign up to attend the next one head to: www.thevoiceofauthority.com/webinar.