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"The office will continue to be a vital part of most of our lives" says Helen Berresford


"The office will continue to be a vital part of most of our lives" says Helen Berresford

The coronavirus pandemic will not kill the office, but we will see some striking changes when we return to work, says Helen Berresford, head of Sheppard Robson‘s interiors studio.

Post-pandemic offices will be reduced to 20 per cent occupancy, shared spaces will have to be rethought and a “pandemic mode” may be introduced to some workspaces, according to Berresford, who heads up ID:SR in the firm.

“At the start, your office will be very different to when you left it,” she told Dezeen.

“We are working with several large organisations on their return strategy and, after numerous studies by our workplace team, we have found that an initial return to the office will be based on approximately 20 per cent occupancy.”

“The modern office is a great leveller”

Although mass working from home has proved to be viable for some organisations and individuals, Berresford believes that after the pandemic eases the office will once again become many people’s primary place of work.

“The office will continue to be a vital part of most of our lives even though working from home has proved effective over the last three months,” she said.

“The modern office is a great leveller in comparison: everyone has the similar amount of space, the same seat to sit on, similar facilities and technology,” she continued.

“This is probably why, when we see the results of many recent staff surveys, the majority of people want to get back into the office but with a greater degree of flexibility than ever before.”

“Designers will need to rethink what the office is about”

However, the offices people will be returning to will have to be adapted both in the short and long term, with the circulation and shared spaces being the most challenging to plan for.

“Planning a designated space where people are going to sit and do their work is pretty straight forward but it’s the shared spaces such as entrances, lifts and amenities which are problematic,” said Berresford.

“Initially, the designer will need to rethink what the office is about. We have spent a long-time developing workplaces focused on bringing people together, sharing spaces and resources, and letting people move freely between a range of work settings,” she continued.

“But these workplace values will have to be paused when we first go back to the office and a new way of thinking adopted whilst fulfilling that desire to get together in the culture of an organisation.”

“It’s tempting to make bold claims about revolutions in office design”

Berresford does not see companies abandoning open plan arrangements entirely, but instead utilising flexible spaces that can be open, closed, or even turned into “pandemic mode”.

“Even if you remove the pandemic from the equation, for open plan to be successful, you need to create a series of spaces, both open and closed, that support the specific activities you need to do,” she said. “I think this will continue to be the case and that strategies could evolve to include a ‘pandemic mode’ within it.”

“Our offices, more than ever, will need careful stewardship to make sure they can flex to create balance between open and closed, intimate and collective, keeping pace with the changing world outside,” she added.

The coronavirus has seen lots of predictions about revolutionary change to offices and other building types, but Berresford sees the pandemic as speeding up many changes that were already taking place.

“It’s so tempting to make bold claims about revolutions in office design but I think we are more likely to see accelerated evolution of the themes we were seeing in the workplace before the pandemic,” she said.

“For example, we were seeing a convergence between office and the hospitality sector before the pandemic, creating spaces that acted as a magnet for talent and welcomed people in. This magnetic quality, alongside flexibility and a choice of how and where to work, is going to be more important than ever to keep companies productive and their culture strong.”

Read below for an edited version of the interview with Berresford:


Tom Ravenscroft: Is the physical workplace under threat?

Helen Berresford: Put simply, no. The office will continue to be a vital part of most of our lives even though working from home has proved effective over the last three months.

People will still gravitate towards the office for many reasons. We are hearing a lot of positive work from home stories and it has worked well for a lot of organisations, including ours. But there are a lot of people out there working in stressful, cramped conditions at home that you don’t hear from.

The modern office is a great leveller in comparison: everyone has the similar amount of space, the same seat to sit on, similar facilities and technology. This is probably why, when we see the results of many recent staff surveys, the majority of people want to get back into the office but with a greater degree of flexibility than ever before.

Tom Ravenscroft: Will the novelty of work from home will wear off?

Helen Berresford: I think a lot of people have been surprised with how easily work from home has been adopted, and that’s great. I definitely think work from home will have a much bigger part to play in our lives and any taboo associated with it will be further eroded. It’s shattered any lingering sense of presenteeism.

However, work from home does encourage a more linear approach to work – we make meetings, we have video conference calls, we mostly stick to our schedule. But in the office, we benefit from unexpected collisions. It doesn’t matter if you’re working in media, scientific discovery, law or at a bank, our clients place a huge amount of importance in these serendipitous moments for productivity and creative output.

I think the design community is particularly fortunate to work in spaces that have been really thought about and have special qualities that lift your mood. I certainly miss the courtyard at our London office and when I return to I will have a new appreciation of it.

Helen Berresford: How will offices need to be adapted to allow people to actually return? What will an office look like on day one?

Helen Berresford: At the start, your office will be very different to when you left it. We are working with several large organisations on their return strategy and, after numerous studies by our workplace team, we have found that an initial return to the office will be based on approximately 20 per cent occupancy.

This is a rough guide and will of course depend on culture of your office, location and sector but gives you an idea of what day one in the office will look and feel like.

This 20 per cent occupancy will then factor in shift-working, increased work from home, and the need for two-metre physical distancing, allowing us to rethink how physical spaces are used and the operational activities needed to minimise health risks. Fewer people will perhaps be one of the most evident things when you enter your office for the first time.

Tom Ravenscroft: What are the key barriers for organisations in returning to the office?

Helen Berresford: Planning a designated space where people are going to sit and do their work is pretty straight forward but it’s the shared spaces such as entrances, lifts and amenities which are problematic.

Some spaces, like areas designed specifically for collaborative work, will likely be closed initially, while other essential shared spaces will need to rethought. Whilst the drivers for return to the office are led by a need to reconnect and collaborate face-to-face, we will still need to supplement this return to the office with stronger digital connections when in the office whilst physical distancing prevails.

Tom Ravenscroft: What does that rethinking entail?

Helen Berresford: There are many, many considerations. Lifts will be restricted to one or two people and possibly supplemented by the use PPE gear; meeting rooms will be used as personal offices while catch-ups continue to be done digitally facilities management strategies will create a suitable cleaning rota for toilets; routes around the office will be created to minimise chances of coming together.

People normally focus on physical space when talking about the obstacles of going back to the office; however, there’s a key managerial element to it as well.

If, at the start, there’s only 20 per cent of people occupying the office at one time, who should be in the office? And when? And who do they need to be working alongside to make their trip into the office worthwhile? Using the 20 per cent wisely is essential and mapping out new patterns of work is going to be a challenging task for many organisations.

Tom Ravenscroft: And what is the designer’s role in this?

Helen Berresford: Well I think designers can’t just concentrate on changing the physical space as this is just one piece of a very complex jigsaw. In my view, the architect or designer should be talking to everyone – the FM team, the staff, the HR team… even the unions to decide on what is the best way to minimise risk and make sure people are benefitting from being in the office. By being central to everything about the office, we can shape the inner workings of the office and, with it, the culture of the organisation

Tom Ravenscroft: Does the pandemic mean that lots of thinking about office design for the past 10/20 years needs to be undone?

Helen Berresford: Initially, the designer will need to rethink what the office is about. We have spent a long-time developing workplaces focused on bringing people together, sharing spaces and resources, and letting people move freely between a range of work settings.

But these workplace values will have to be paused when we first go back to the office and a new way of thinking adopted whilst fulfilling that desire to get together in the culture of an organisation.

Tom Ravenscroft: Will the pandemic lead to the death of open plan office spaces?

Helen Berresford: I think we often talk about workplaces like there are two modes: “open” and “closed” which equates to a sea of desks and a collection of private offices. But in reality, the space between open and closed is the most interesting.

Even if you remove the pandemic from the equation, for open plan to be successful, you need to create a series of spaces, both open and closed, that support the specific activities you need to do. I think this will continue to be the case and that strategies could evolve to include a “pandemic mode” within it.

Our offices, more than ever, will need careful stewardship to make sure they can flex to create balance between open and closed, intimate and collective, keeping pace with the changing world outside.

Tom Ravenscroft: How will office design be impacted long-term by the pandemic?

Helen Berresford: The office is bound to change but that’s nothing new – it’s been adapting to lifestyles and changes in corporate culture for a long time now.

It’s so tempting to make bold claims about revolutions in office design but I think we are more likely to see accelerated evolution of the themes we were seeing in the workplace before the pandemic. For example, we were seeing a convergence between office and the hospitality sector before the pandemic, creating spaces that acted as a magnet for talent and welcomed people in. This magnetic quality, alongside flexibility and a choice of how and where to work, is going to be more important than ever to keep companies productive and their culture strong.

The post "The office will continue to be a vital part of most of our lives" says Helen Berresford appeared first on Dezeen.

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