Lucy Arthur, Operations and Marketing Director, AshbyCapital, reflects on how COVID-19 is changing business office requirements.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, even though the technology was available, there was a reluctance by firms to fully embrace homeworking. This has now changed. Combined with the current crisis making people more conscious of their health, how will this translate to business’ future office requirements?

Stringent social distancing measures have effectively meant homeworking is the only way of working for office workers. Although homeworking has its place, weeks of it has shown its limits. Some people find homeworking socially isolating, then there is the issue of separating work from private life, let alone the challenges of working in a cramped home with children.

Businesses thrive when people work at their optimum. There are times when focused work requires solitude and little distraction, which in ideal circumstances can be achieved at home or in a private office. But there are times when collaborative working and face-to-face meetings are needed, perhaps in a comfy breakout area. Then there are presentations which require state-of-the-art audio-visual systems. People need to have a choice of working environments to maximise their productivity and well designed, flexible office space plays an important part in this.

Wrapped up in productivity is health and wellbeing. The impact of poor mental and physical health has become more apparent and risen up the business agenda in recent years. Stress, anxiety and depression last year caused 12.8 million lost working days in the UK, while musculoskeletal disorders caused the loss of 6.9 million working days. Furthermore, workplace wellbeing is increasingly seen as important by workers as well as employers. One survey found that 93% of tech workers would stay with a firm offering wellness options such as yoga classes than one without. In the competition for talent this is an important consideration.

For businesses to attract skilled staff, an attractive and pleasant working environment is essential. This goes beyond attractive décor and impressive atriums. With wellbeing high on the list of concerns for workers, firms with premises offering facilities such as yoga studios, changing rooms and showers for cyclists/runners, as well as outdoor spaces and lush greenery, both of which have been shown to boost mental wellbeing, will be top of their list of preferences.

Post pandemic occupiers will focus heavily on quality in offices in their drive to attract talent and boost productivity. This trend was already apparent prior to the COVID-19 crisis, but now firms will be even more discerning in their choice of workspace. AshbyCapital and U&I’s The Future Works, a 100,000 sq ft office building in Slough, has been designed right from the start to attract talented workers, with wellbeing and a productive environment woven in. The building offers showers, lockers and changing facilities, combined with secure cycle storage, an events programme that includes yoga and table tennis, and an extensive roof terrace and garden with WiFi connectivity for people to relax, work and socialise.
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Office design is a major determinant on mental health and productivity. Dr Oshin Vatania, of the University of Toronto-Scarborough, discovered people feel mentally stimulated by rooms with high ceilings. Plenty of natural light also has been shown to have a positive effect on health, with researchers finding that sitting within 10ft of a window decreases eyestrain by 84%. The Future Works has been built with this in mind, with 2.9m ceiling heights and high levels of natural light both key aspects of the building’s design.

Then there is the importance of the social aspect of office life. Many great ideas have been born of the chance meeting or a relaxed discussion in café, which is impossible to recreate in the environment of the home. Both the ground floor café and roof terrace at The Future Works help serve this function.

Some people might have thought the post pandemic future of the office is bleak. But, enforced homeworking has shown that people want choice and they appreciate the social and collaborative aspects of office life. If a building offers this and boosts wellbeing in the right location it will be very much in demand. After all, you only need to look at the tech giants who have heavily invested in high-quality office buildings when they could have most people working from home. For them, getting people to work under one roof to foster creativity – their life blood – makes good business sense. Much the same can be said of the rest of the business community.