Even ardent office enthusiasts will find the return to work a slog. The Government’s advice for creating “Covid-19 secure” workplaces is uninspiring: lifts must be half empty (creating tricky bottlenecks in high-rise offices), two-metre distancing tape will be everywhere (like a post-viral crime scene) and working hours will be staggered (meaning working days will feel longer). Hot-desking is also out, so there’s some good news. While construction and manufacturing sectors have had the green light to return, what is the future of the inner-city office?
More importantly, will you want to work there? The omens aren’t good. One company, Pathfindr, excitedly debuted a beeper designed to ensure workers stay two metres apart this week — activating whenever a colleague wearing one comes too close. Fun. It’s also reached the stage of lockdown at which it’s difficult to remember what your desk looks like, and “WFH” has suited many. Software firm Citrix found two thirds of UK workers believe working from home will become more common in the wake of the virus, and most companies’ internal surveys support that idea. Employees say they’ve enjoyed a better work-life balance during lockdown.
Meet the new office security
Employers must ensure offices are safe. Co-working space Fora, whose 11 London sites are home to companies including Time Warner, Sony, Nike and Dropbox, have upgraded security cameras to incoroporate thermal-imaging technology in order to screen for those with high temperatures. Anyone confirmed to have a temperature of more than 38C will not be granted entry. “The technology’s amazing,” Fora co-founder Enrico Sanna tells me. “You can hold a hot coffee cup in front of you and the camera can tell it’s not you.”
Hand-washing stations will be ubiquitous, but better ventilation is also imperative. Older air conditioning systems often recycle the same air through the building. Two studies of a single restaurant in Guangzhou, China, concluded that crowded gatherings and poor ventilation created an isolated loop, allowing virus particles to be transferred. Sanna says that modern systems cycling fresh air from outside mitigate the diffusion of airborne viral “microdroplets”.
Better sanitation costs money. The Government has earmarked £14 million for health and safety inspectors and equipment but, as Second Home founder Rohan Silva tells me, it’s a full-time time job “thinking about cleaning every half-hour”. He says one reason his co-working space has received such a high volume of six-month rental enquiries is that companies struggling to stay afloat simply can’t afford to pay their own sanitation bills. Several inner-city banks have put in large orders to StoBox, an initiative shipping crates of antibacterial wipes, oximeters and thermometers to businesses. Generally, Silva thinks that the virus will accelerate trends that were already there: healthier, better-sanitised office spaces where worker well-being is prioritised.
Returning to the office desk will be arduous. Transport for London says it can only run at between 13 and 15 per cent capacity while meeting social distancing guidelines. Until the virus is eliminated, rush hour will be a biohazard as well as ghastly. According to polling from the TUC, 40 per cent of workers surveyed feel worried returning to their usual place of work. Some, like those with underlying health conditions, will stay away indefinitely.
The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past”, said Jes Staley, chief executive of Barclays, as a PwC survey found a quarter of chief financial officers were thinking of cutting back on office real estate. Two weeks ago Twitter announced that it will allow its employees to work from home “forever”. Last week Facebook announced it will do similar — with a likely 50 per cent of its personnel WFH permanently. Despite fears that a surge in internet use would overwhelm broadband networks, they’ve largely held up. A survey in the US by the company Change Research found 60 per cent of those polled said they were more productive. That said, studies have shown that home workers can be more productive if — and only if — they have an undisturbed working routine and a functioning home office.