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Future of Work 2020

Standing up to change in the face of a pandemic

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Robin Brodie Cooper

Senior Vice-President of The British Council for Offices and Director at Gleeds

It’s no secret that our industry is facing something of an identity crisis. More than two months of lockdown has shown that the UK’s workforce is able to work remotely and do so, for the most part, with relative ease using the latest communication technologies.


The idea of the traditional office has been thrown on its head and challenged those of us within the industry with new questions about our purpose and objective. However, it’s important at this juncture to recognise that, while the COVID-19 pandemic is entirely new, disruption is not.

COVID-19 has demonstrated, more acutely than ever before, that the office sector does not exist in a vacuum. To evolve, we can’t isolate ourselves. We must stand up to the changes happening around us and respond. Twenty years ago, workplaces were uniform, grey buildings housing rows of uniform desks in grey rooms. Today, there is no blueprint, no one-size fits-all but rather, different models all vying to best meet demand. 

Download the roadmap for the transitional workplace.

Short and long-term challenges

The current pandemic may, particularly in the short term, bring back some of the old office uniformity. In order for offices to operate safely many will introduce similar measures to meet the necessary health and safety requirements. For example, no matter the occupier, meeting rooms should have strict occupancy limits, floor signage will likely be used by many to signal safe distances for employees using lifts, corridors and stairwells. Receptions across the world will increasingly have in-built screens to protect staff.

But long-term, standing up to change in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic can help us reshape our industry, and build better offices for the people who work within them. 

By facing up to change, tackling new challenges head on and responding to new demands around connection, hygiene or space, modern workplaces can refocus on human connection in a way that feels entirely new, and entirely compelling.

COVID-19 has strengthened community spirit across society. With that comes a new challenge to businesses and their workplaces: to play a greater role in the community. We must build offices that offer greater space for hosting events, or for small businesses like shops and restaurants looking to rebuild. 

The importance of an office is to give workers a landing place where the culture of a firm can be embedded, ideas generated and shared, friendships and teams established and where the younger generation can learn from those with more experience.

As Reid Hoffman, Co Founder of LinkedIn said: “No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you will always lose out to a team.”

The office of the future

Offices should therefore focus on creating more collaborative spaces, where employees can benefit from the community created within its walls – as well as the one buzzing outside. It’s no secret that many of us will work from home more often in the future. The days we do spend in the office will likely be reserved for the relationships we form there and the physical office should reflect this. 

Similarly, more flexible working patterns will create new space in existing offices as occupancy levels fall. This space can be repurposed to provide greater resources for those who are in the office on any given day. Rather than rows of desks reserved for individual work, we may see greater value placed on wellness with more quiet focus rooms, or gyms, being incorporated as standard.

Ten years ago, everyone predicted the death of the office at the hands of home working. The catalyst at that point was the rapid evolution of technology in the 90s and the introduction of the mobile phone. They were wrong.

Today, the office sector has an opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong again. By facing up to change, tackling new challenges head on and responding to new demands around connection, hygiene or space, modern workplaces can refocus on human connection in a way that feels entirely new, and entirely compelling.

Download the roadmap for the transitional workplace.

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