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Can your Head Office be Covid safe and a sociable space?

It’s Monday 17th March 2020; the last day our head office was fully functioning, full of colleagues and most importantly a fun place to be. That was the day our office closed and just over a week later the whole country went into Covid lockdown and working from home became the new normal.

Fast forward 156 days to Wednesday 19th August and I returned to the office for the first time. Like most people returning to their offices I only had one concern: Would my team and I feel safe?

It was a very strange and surreal experience being back, but I have to say our health & safety and facilities teams have done an amazing job delivering a safe environment for us all. We have hand sanitizer stations throughout the building, reduced meeting room capacities, only one person in the kitchen areas at any one time and we’ve even got a one-way system in and out of the building. There are posters and signs throughout the building explaining what you need to do, we really have thought of everything.

So, my initial fears had been allayed, we were going to be able to go back to a safe environment. But there was something missing and I couldn’t put my finger on it. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, on my second visit, that it hit me. Our office was safe and functional not sociable and collaborative.

To add some context, I work in hospitality, possibly the most sociable industry in the world. Our whole ethos is built on creating enjoyable and engaging experiences for all our guests, retail teams and head office colleagues. But the office has lost its heartbeat, that buzz when you walk in, the sound of chatter throughout the building. Our office has become inhospitable, perhaps that is too strong, it has certainly become an unsociable space.

Our teams are used to working from home, enjoying the flexibility it brings and not wasting time commuting to and from the office. Why would they come back to an office that feels so unsociable? This is the challenge that all businesses face, can we make our offices Covid safe whilst creating a sociable, collaborative and innovative environment? We all need to make our offices inviting again, somewhere our teams want to be, not have to be.

Some of the best business decisions are made in a sociable moment in the office. We have lost the water cooler (or in our case the kitchen) moments. That time when you get chatting to someone, ask how there day is, where they work and then you realise that they can help you sort out a problem. It used to happen all the time.

Monday’s were busy; all the support teams were in the office and it was a great day to catch up with colleagues face to face. You might overhear a conversation, find out something interesting about another part of the business and be able to impact, influence or support a decision about to be made. How do we facilitate these conversations when 60-70% of the people who used to be in the office aren’t there?

Safety must come first though, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic after all, but do some of these measures stop us from what we do best? Of course, they do. We need to find a way of working smarter and more efficiently, but most importantly physically face to face, regaining our sociability. We need to challenge what the purpose of a head office is, and perhaps more importantly what it needs to become to encourage our teams back.

The one thing I do know from my own experiences is that I would be moving away from large, monotone open plan offices with regimented banks of hot desks. These simply feel cold and uninviting when they are empty, so why would anyone start going back more regularly?

Perhaps we need to consider converting offices into meeting room hubs with soft furnished breakout areas that facilitate face to face discussions over coffee. A space that encourages conversations and collaborations, not silence and isolation.

Whatever the answer is we need to find one quickly otherwise there will be offices all over the UK sitting empty or at reduced capacity for a long time to come.

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