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World Day for Safety and Health At Work 2020 – not just another day in the office

Tuesday (28 April) was World Day for Safety and Health at Work.  Traditionally, this is the day each year when the International Labour Organisation (ILO) promotes safe, healthy and decent work surroundings. This may not be a date that many property professionals have marked in their diaries, but this year the ILO campaign may have attracted more interest than usual as it comes at a time when we are all starting to think about how we manage a safe return to the workplace.

The Government have just released details of their plan for getting us all back to work post-Covid19.  Amongst other things, the guidance encourages employers to:

  • minimise the number of staff using equipment at one time
  • stagger shift patterns and start times,
  • maximise home working wherever possible
  • employ additional hygiene procedures and the use of physical screens and protective equipment.

Although some of the finer details of the government’s plan are yet to be confirmed, there have already been some concerns raised by both the TUC and the British Chamber of Commerce, with the latter calling for clearer guidance on whether employers will be obliged to provide PPE to staff.  The BCC also makes the point that companies must be confident they will not be sued if they get things wrong.

It is clear that the government’s plans will result in some changes to the way we have been used to working pre-Covid 19 and we will all need to find our “new normal”.

So what sort of changes can we expect to see, and how will those changes impact on occupiers and landlords and those involved in the construction, design and fit out of our office working environments?

  1. Will we continue to use office space in the same way?

          If we are all going to be working from home more often, we might find that trips into the office are reserved for collaborative working, team meetings and social occasions to catch up with colleagues. As a result, occupiers looking for new office space may place greater emphasis on larger rooms and the communal facilities available to staff rather than the number of desks the space can accommodate.  The use of hot-desking and multi occupied workspaces may become less attractive unless landlords are able to put in place adequate safety measures to ensure social distancing can be maintained.

We spoke to David Ford, the Commercial Director for Area, a specialist office fit out and design company about the likely changes we can expect to see in the way we use our office space, and he had this to say:

“There is no doubt the recent Covid-19 outbreak has changed the way occupiers view their offices together with the wellbeing of their employees, their habits and workstyles. The technology that has supported business through the crisis has been here for a while, we have all just frowned upon its use, however now it is seen as a tool for flexible working and an aid to better communication. Whether a return to American style cubes, 2m planning grids, bookable desking is the answer we will have to wait and see but the most important thing is to ensure we adapt and make our workplace a safe environment to give the confidence to the user to return to the new world.”

Joe Cilia, Technical Director at FIS (the trade body for the fitout sector) has also provided us with his views on the sort of changes we might see in the office sector:

  • ‘Perhaps we will see the office of the future being the office of the past. Offices in the past were traditionally a cellular affair with spaces for individuals or small clusters, and even when we moved to open plan some individual workstations were screened off. Now with more clear screens available and partitions made entirely of glass the feeling of light and space doesn’t need to be compromised.
It’s not just about being safe, but feeling safe that will encourage staff to return and get the economy moving again.’ he added, ‘ and providing safe spaces to work is clear indicator that business care about the safety and wellbeing of everyone.’
  1. Will our buildings be “future-proofed” to cope with pandemics?

          Some commentators have suggested that in the larger London office blocks we may see the introduction of temperature scanners in entrance lobbies so that staff can be monitored on arrival.  We may also see medical staff being retained on site, additional screening used in reception areas and automatic door releases to minimise contact with surfaces. This may also be a lucrative time for manufacturers of antimicrobial furniture, which until now had perhaps only been popular in the medical and healthcare sector.

          Such futureproofing may be harder to achieve in older properties, where the cost of installing suitable equipment may be prohibitive. This could result in such properties being even harder to market, and we may see older buildings re-purposed for other uses.

  1. Location, location, location?

          When speaking to colleagues this week, many have mentioned that their primary concern about returning to work is how they will get there.  The Government’s draft guidance has suggested that employers, where possible, allow for staggered start times so we are not all clamouring to get on to the same congested train or bus. This will be particularly relevant to those working in busy city centre offices.

          We may find that those looking for new office accommodation in the future will favour business parks in quieter locations that avoid busy transport hubs.   Local working may also become more popular with our workforces living and working closer to home, to avoid lengthy commutes that could potentially expose them to health risks that until now, we would not have given a second thought.

  1. Will a Tenant’s “wish list” change?

          Quite possibly. Flexibility has always been important for corporate occupiers, and rarely do we see a set of heads of terms these days without a tenant break option. Most break options are agreed at fixed intervals mid-way through the term, but might we see tenants attempting to negotiate breaks linked to other external factors in return for a higher rent or seeking to incorporate force majeure clauses.

          Over the past twenty or so years, the average length of a commercial lease has also reduced, and I can’t remember the last office lease I completed with a term over 10 years. Post Covid-19, we may see lease terms reduce even further, and short-term serviced office accommodation may become more popular, particularly if landlord’s are able to offer additional building services that address the greater importance we will all now place on cleanliness, health and well-being in the workplace.

          Outdoor space may also become an essential requirement for corporate occupiers, with many employers placing more importance on the well-being of their staff. Over the past 7 weeks, many of us will have got used to taking our government-approved daily exercise walk or run and will be keen to continue that when we’re back in the workplace.

  1. Change comes at a cost?

          A number of the government’s proposed workplace rules will entail additional cost. The TUC have identified “gaps” in the guidance relating to the use of PPE in the workplace, pointing out that if employers are obliged to provide this to staff, they could find themselves competing with the NHS and other healthcare providers for essential equipment.

The Government have released details of their plan for getting us all back to work post Covid-19.

What about the cost of installing other health and safety equipment in multi-occupied buildings (e.g. screens, directional markings to ensure social distancing is maintained, additional cleaning services and regular cleaning and maintenance of ventilation systems)? These costs are likely to result in higher service charge costs for many occupiers and could cause a headache for any landlords who have already agreed capped contributions for the current financial year.

The pandemic has undoubtedly caused a great deal of pain and suffering to many businesses, but perhaps one positive to be taken from the lockdown period is that we have all been forced to take a good look at our working environment. We now know that many of us can work effectively and productively from home (even with children and partners in the background), and we can use this knowledge and insight to allow us to make well-informed decisions about our future workplace requirements.

It will be interesting to revisit this discussion in a year’s time to see how many of the anticipated changes have become the “new normal”!

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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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