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The return of The Office

COVID-19 has redefined our relationship to both personal and public space, you may have caught yourself watching a film and flinching when characters are standing too close. Hotdesking in a busy open plan office, queuing for the coffee or vending machine and chatting by the water cooler may not happen again for a while.

The Government has set out its timeframe for retail shops to open from 15 June 2020, however it maintains in England that those who can work from home should continue to do so for as long as possible, but if people are unable to work from home, they should be encouraged to go to work subject to following the health and social distancing guidelines.

A recent survey of office workers by Evans Jones surveyors and property consultants reveals that pre-lockdown 5% worked from home full time and 27% had worked from home at some point. Since lockdown this has increased to 49% working from home. So, what does this mean for the future of the office?

Will home working replace office working?

Whilst many of us are comfortable with remote working, not everyone wants to work at home long term.  Although there may be some reticence in coming back to a busy office environment, for many, several months of lockdown and home working may increase the desire to get back into the office. 

Home working and office working each bring their own benefits, home working can assist a good work/life balance. It can supply a larger pool of employees who don’t need to live within a commutable distance and reduced travel brings environmental benefits.  Home working can provide a greater degree of flexibility and for some (not all), increased productivity. From a budgetary perspective office accommodation is a large expense, and considerable cost savings can be made where you can reduce this. 

Offices provide an important support structure for businesses, aiding collaboration between staff as well as a providing an important social component. It can help with creativity and knowledge sharing; you cannot have a water cooler moment if there is no one around the water cooler! It is also very helpful for training and mentoring, whilst Teams and Zoom are a great asset, they are still scheduled meetings, and don’t enable knowledge sharing by osmosis.

Traditionally, many businesses have been nervous about embracing home working; however, lockdown has shown it can work well for many. Unsurprisingly, most of us would like a balance between the two. Evans Jones noted that 73% would prefer to work from home 2 days a week and 43% would prefer to work from home 3 days a week. It is likely that most businesses will encourage a mix of home and office working with businesses and employees sharing the benefits.

How will COVID-19 affect your use of office space?

As many of us will want to go back to our offices, workplaces will need to be adapted considering the COVID-19 guidance.

There have been questions over whether COVID-19 will spell the end for open plan and the return to individual offices, however, provided certain safeguards are met, open plan is still heathier than traditional offices. With fewer contact areas, there is less risk of infection.  Fewer doors, contactless doors, modern wipeable and antibacterial worksurfaces, more fresh air and better ventilation are all easier to deal with in open plan environments.

So long as the necessary safeguards are put in place, we are likely to experience a shift from modular and allocated desk space to more drop-in work space, providing more attractive and flexible workspaces with fewer ‘desks’ and more meeting and collaboration areas. 

We are likely to continue remote working after seeing the benefits of working from the kitchen table or home office however, this will lead to an increased demand for suitable “meeting” spaces. In the short-term, social distancing could see conference rooms switched for virtual meeting rooms equipped with video conferencing facilities.

Even considering social distancing measures in the office, the increase in home working is likely to reduce required floor space.  A recent study looking at London premises with approx. 200 staff, noted that a shift to flexible and home working could lead to a 20% reduction in floor area providing considerable financial savings.

What do you want and need from your office space?

To understand your future office requirements, you need to consider:

  • what activities you will continue to run from the office?
  • how many people will occupy the building and at what times?

If you are not currently tied into a long legal lease or other arrangement you may want to consider shorter term leases or licences so that you can get out quickly if your business is likely to be affected in recession.

 

What if you need to change your office space?

You may want to reduce your floorspace if you are looking at more flexible and home working and need to look at your current occupancy agreement to assess your options.

Lease ending/break clause

You may be close to the end of your lease term or a break date; if your office no longer suits your requirements your simplest option may be to simply end the lease or exercise your break rights. You may have to deal with some dilapidations issues, but this may still be the simplest way forward. You can then identify more suitable premises for your changing needs or negotiate with your current landlord to renew your lease but on reduced terms.

Re-gearing

If you have a large amount of your lease left to run, you need to consider re-gearing. You are probably looking to reduce your floor space and expenditure and have a degree of flexibility.  Check your lease to see if you can assign, underlet, sublet or share occupation with others.  You then need to speak with your landlord to see what they are prepared to do. 

In recent years office rents have been on a steady increase but this could change if there is an increase in homeworking. If you have been a good tenant, your landlord may agree to a long term rent reduction or more flexible shared occupancy.   This is more likely if you have an independent landlord (less so with an investment or pension fund landlord which may have its hands tied), however it is always worth discussing. If you are looking to end your lease or reduce your floorspace, if you can supply a replacement occupier, your landlord may find this easier to accept. 

Getting back into the office – precautions to take

If you are returning to the office, you need to ensure your policies and procedures reflect social distancing and cleaning requirements. The Government has produced detailed guidelines and a checklist for indoor environments as part of the COVID-19 Secure Guidelines. Click here for the full details which may be updated as time goes on.

 

For more information and advice about any property issues, please contact Sally McFadden or another member of the BPE Commercial Property team.

For a full range of support and advice as more businesses return to work, please visit our dedicated business continuity area and follow #FutureNow on social media.

 

These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.

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