Businesses have been proactive in countering these negative impacts. Practices like encouraging employees to take their lunch breaks, to exercise regularly and take their annual leave, even when they have been unable to travel, all bring benefits. As do practical measures like avoiding back-to-back virtual meetings.

‘KPMG is piloting a ‘rainbow meeting’ system, so staff can determine whether a meeting is a priority, whether it needs to be conducted on-screen or whether it can be dialled into while they are out walking’

Bringing employees back to the office presents both opportunities and risks. All interviewees said they had complied with government regulations to make the office Covid-secure.

“We have markers in the lifts to ensure social distancing, a one-way system around the floors for entry and exit, temperature checks and screens between desks,” said Gray.

“We also introduced a ‘bot’ booking system so people can pre-book their workspace with sensors on desks that allocate desks for people to sit at, all of which helps to manage numbers using the offices.”

Barnett believes most businesses are well- equipped and familiar with the necessary health and safety provisions, and the main challenge moving forward will be managing individuals’ behaviours particularly among those who are less concerned with social distancing than they should be.

Identifying the perks of office working

Thomas welcomes the benefits that come with bringing staff back into the office. “It’s wonderful to see colleagues connecting and laughing,” he said.

“Ultimately, it’s not about sitting at your laptop from 8am to 6pm every with back-to-back emails and Zoom calls. There’s the culture element you need to consider as well.”

Guy Richardson, director of Lakewood, a Hampshire- based office fit-out, design and refurbishment company, concurs. He argues that work environments play a vital role in influencing employee behaviour.

“If you can design a space which naturally provokes staff to move in a certain way, to get up out of the desk when they start to feel tired or provokes them to naturally socialise with their colleagues, all of these small benefits build up over time, including boosting productivity,” he said.

Part of the challenge going forward will be creating work spaces that enable this while remaining Covid-secure.

Gray said PwC plans to invest around £75m in its offices over this financial year and next, as part of its ongoing improvement and ever flexible programme. It has also announced a ‘new deal’ for employees.

However, he adds that it’s worth noting that many are still sitting on the fence, in part due to the furlough scheme.

“Out of those that we’ve spoken to, the majority of them don’t want to make a decision,” he said. “Most are saying they are not going to start planning for it until June but many are going to leave it until next year.”

Powell at Active Work Solutions concurred. “We’ve seen a couple of clients who have closed floors or remarketed floors and sublet them. We have had a number of clients that have come to the end of their lease and they’ve let it finish,” he said. “They’ll continue to work from home and bide their time.

‘The biggest success during remote working has been our commitment to a daily morning coffee and chat as a team’

Barnett continued: “Anyone not busy with client work dials in for an informal team Zoom call – and it’s not just about work. This has helped us maintain our connection.”

For those continuing to work at home, making sure no one is left out is critical.

“The main element is that people will now be empowered to choose where they work, when they work and how they work using technology,” he explained.

“The new deal recognises that we all have a unique set of skills, circumstances and priorities. Ultimately, it’s based on trust and the concept of two-way flexibility, giving people more freedom to work in a way that better suits them, but also meets the needs of teams, the wider firm and our clients.”

As the pandemic enters its second year, most businesses appear to be moving to a hybrid model. Since September, Lakewood has engaged with roughly 3,000 companies and about 80% have confirmed they will do this.

“Employees will work from home for two or three days a week and come in for the rest to have that social interaction,” said Richardson. MAY/JUNE 2021


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