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What will the “New Normal” for our offices look like?

Our Construction and Real Estate teams hosted a virtual roundtable focusing on our return to the office post Covid-19.

We were joined by 10 property professionals all from different sectors of the property industry. It was a thoroughly enjoyable event, with lots of opinions and ideas shared during a lively one-hour session.

Here is a list of some of the key points discussed, with thanks to Joe Cilia from The Finishes and Interiors Sector for his help in producing these notes:

  1. Immediate concerns: As more businesses look to return staff to the workplace, addressing social distancing, hygiene and concerns about commuting by public transport are likely to be the biggest issues. Many supermarkets have already adapted their premises to ensure customers maintain social distancing.   Businesses will need to apply similar measures in the office / workplace. Some employees may prefer to continue home working until public transport is safer.  Commuting by car may not be practical for those staff based in city centre locations, where car parking facilities are rarely provided.
  2. Hive” concept: The enforced period of lockdown and homeworking will inevitably lead some businesses to reconsider how to make the best use of their office space.  The office may become a central “hive” where people can get together to communicate and collaborate, with more concentrated work carried out at home.
  3. Social Contact: Maintaining social contact is important to many members of staff. Employees who either live alone or in shared accommodation may be keen to return to the office as soon as it is safe to do so.  Maintaining physical separation at workstations would be one way of ensuring staff feel safe in their work environment, and providing personal equipment (keyboard, mouse) that can be locked away at the end of the day, to maintain good hygiene.
  4. Partitioning: Space analysis can be carried out by businesses to understand the appropriate use of partitioning.  Such analysis should take account of the following:

          (a) aesthetics

          (b) ventilation

          (c) lighting

          (d) service media

          (e) any requirements for building regulation approval / landlord consent.

  1. State of the property market: Current indications are that many property investors are putting decisions on hold, not wishing to commit to significant transactions during this period of economic uncertainty.  Many landlords have reported significant drops in their income stream for the March quarter. The June quarter could be equally difficult. Tenants may be concerned about their ability to exercise break options, if recent rent payments have been deferred due to Covid-19.
  2. Relocate or reconfigure? Many businesses will be balancing the costs of reconfiguring their existing premises against relocating to alternative premises.   Business owners may defer that decision until we have a clearer indication of when a vaccine may be found.  Several panel commentators make the point that the cost of relocating is significant and is something a business would plan some years in advance, rather than in response to the pandemic.
  3. Tenant requirements: The general consensus is that tenant’s requirements may change in the short term while the pandemic is still fresh in all of our minds, but in time, we may see things return to normal.  One panel member noted the parallels that can be drawn with the aftermath of 9/11, where tenants were understandably put off high rise buildings in the city centre.  It is anticipated that tenants may start to prioritise the use of outdoor space with natural ventilation. Shorter term leases with more flexibility may be preferred, although it is doubtful that an option to break a lease in the event of a pandemic would ever be acceptable to landlords.

 

The office may become a central “hive” where people can get together to communicate and collaborate, with more concentrated work carried out at home.

The Well Building Certification Scheme may become more important for occupiers when selecting new premises.

  1. Landlord concerns: Landlords will have added obligations in relation to the safe management and operation of communal areas in multi-let buildings. Additional health and safety measures will entail additional cost, at a time when many landlords are receiving reduced rental income. How will landlord’s address competing tenant concerns, particularly where communal facilities (e.g. W.C’s) are shared and will continue to be under the control of the landlord.
  2. Communication: As a result of the enforced period of homeworking, our communication skills have necessarily changed.  We are all now making use of virtual conference facilities, online webinars and skype in order to keep in touch with colleagues and clients.  Some sectors will still require the use of an office and one panel member raised the issue of data infrastructure improvements to copy with the transfer of large data files. Security measures for the use of virtual conferencing will also be important, where confidential information is likely to be shared.

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Disclaimer
This information is for guidance purposes only and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. Please refer to the full General Notices on our website.

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