For Manfred Abraham, the UK’s first plunge into lockdown came at an especially challenging time.
The boss of BrandCap was about to become a co-chief executive of a new consultancy, Yonder, as his firm and two others merged into a single business. “The official launch was going to be April 7,” recalls Abraham. “Getting into the first week of March we had planned a big internal launch party.”
Then lockdown came and the integration was paused before getting off the ground this month, pitching together teams where some people had never met their colleagues in person.
“We were originally thinking that we might run out of office space very soon. We’re not worried about that anymore,” says Abraham.
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Support functions such as the finance team are unlikely to return to the office for more than a couple of days a week, he says. Firms as diverse as Microsoft and Schroders, the asset manager, have already told staff they will be able to work from home permanently. Companies are expected to reduce office space and cut costs.
As lockdowns spread across the UK this month, the more immediate puzzle is to adapt existing offices for an extended “hybrid” working world where some staff come to the office while others stay at home.
“People are starting to think about offices as places where we network and communicate and have workshops and things like that, not just sit in serried ranks of desks where we barely look up from our own computer screens,” says Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Those who returned before the British Government reintroduced its working from home guidance found their workplaces felt out of date.
Joining video calls from an open plan office is “b…… difficult”, complains one senior auditor.
“[With] virtual, we really do know what we’re doing now. The hybrid thing is far, far more complex,” says Mark Williams, a partner at KPMG.
“The historical tendency has been to design events for the people who are in the room, and then treat everybody else as almost second class citizens. You’ve got to spin that the other way around now.”
Computer-based tasks such as emailing can be carried out easily from home but a strong consensus is emerging that offices still have a role.
“While working from home can be very effective, some things are better suited to the office, typically those involving lots of interaction with others such as training and team building,” says Kevin Ellis, chairman and senior partner at PwC.
The firm is considering focusing more on standing meeting spaces than on board rooms, Ellis says. New technology ranges from providing virtual whiteboards to staff working from their spare bedrooms, to more ambitious experiments with virtual reality. KPMG, one of PwC’s main rivals, has also invested in technology to adapt to a hybrid working model.
The firm has repurposed 28,000 sq ft at its Canary Wharf headquarters to create spaces where teams and clients can work together, encompassing the capability to include colleagues and clients who are at home or in other offices. The “Ignition centre” includes breakout areas, floor-to-ceiling white boards and an area with cameras and huge screens for meetings involving detailed data or visual materials.
“In the hybrid world, you have to treat it like a BBC studio,” says Williams, who is head of the Ignition project in the UK.
“You have to have the camera technology, you’ve got to have the screens where you can genuinely make people feel like they are present in the room. And for the people who are in the room, make sure they can see every single facial feature of those people on the screen.”
Companies will also have to avoid the temptation of investing in layouts that look attractive but are impractical.
“Bar stools and tall benches, they don’t work. People don’t want to sit on those if they’re uncomfortable,” says Melvin Rose, who is advising pensions firm Isio on the design of its seven new offices. Diner-style booths and coffee bars are much more popular, he says.
Creating the right spaces and deploying technology are only part of the answer. Bosses are also worried about maintaining cohesion that helps build employee loyalty.
PwC plans to issue guidance so hybrid meetings feel inclusive. “For me, behaviours and etiquette are critical to avoid a ‘them and us’ culture. In meetings, I don’t want people to feel they’re missing out if they’re joining remotely,” says Ellis.
Finding a way of working that can survive the tough winter ahead is now top of the agenda.