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Real business story

How six businesses are deciding what future office spaces should look like

With mandated home working forcing many companies into a unique situation, find out how business leaders are using factors such as employee sentiment and data to shape decisions around the future of workspaces.
Office spaces

One of the business trends that coronavirus and lockdown have accelerated in 2020 and 2021 is the move to work remotely. Increasingly, over the last decade or so, thanks to mobile technology businesses were finding that staff could do their jobs effectively while they were at home or out and about now that trend has been turbo-charged.

Research conducted by YouGov, on behalf of workforce experience layer, Applaud, revealed that a quarter (26 per cent) of UK businesses will either close, downsize or consolidate offices in the coming months.

Better bang for buck

Creative agency St Luke’s has opted for smaller offices because of the success of its working-from-home arrangements. This requirement for less space has enabled it to move to a more attractive central London location in Covent Garden, where, managing director Ed Palmer hopes, it can create an environment in which people want to spend time.

“As a creative business, it’s critical that our people feel inspired by their workplace, and that we create the right conditions for fostering creativity, collaboration and a place where they can build connections with colleagues,” he said. “We’ve made real efforts to create a workspace that suits different modes of working, from collaboration and teamwork, through to deep work and blended video calls. And with its club-style lounge area and roof terrace, it’s a place where people can interact, build meaningful professional relationships with colleagues and clients.”

When they’re looking to decide whether to reduce or increase office space, business leaders need to think about their people and the working culture that they want to engender, argued Ed. “Ultimately, how teams interact at their best will dictate the optimum size of office space needed,” he said. “Lots of solo working, travelling to clients and smaller teams, will all reduce the need for space. Our teams are highly interconnected, the work is fast paced, and we host client meetings regularly, which all increase the need for space.”

Ed added: “You’re responsible for the safety of your employees, so you need to factor in coronavirus safe measures for the foreseeable future. This can impact how much space you need, and factors like ventilation.”

Covid safe workplace

Making workplaces safe during the pandemic has become increasingly important, particularly for those that aren't able to have people work from home

Important for company culture

Unlike St Luke’s, some companies are maintaining or even increasing office space. Cyber security consultancy Pentest People, for instance, is firmly committed to its office culture, while still allowing employees to work remotely when required. In March, the company moved into the largest office space in Leeds’ Round Foundry Media Centre to accommodate the growing team.Then, in May, it opened a second office in Cheltenham’s Hub8 in the heart of the “cyber security centre of excellence”.

The increase in office footprint is largely because the company grew its headcount by 60 per cent in the first half of 2021, launched a graduate recruitment scheme in June and took on nine graduates and two apprentices in July. It has already outgrown the largest office at the Round Foundry and has just signed a lease on an entire floor of The Coach Works from September.

Pentest People co-founder Andrew Mason said: “Having an office is crucial for developing company culture. We want to foster genuine friendships and enable the cross-pollination of ideas. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve walked around and overheard a conversation that’s led to a new idea or service. At the same time, we want our people to look forward to coming into the office, rather than being forced. We installed the arcade machine before the carpets at The Coach Works and we run regular sports and social events.”

That "family feel"

Another business that has expanded its office space is Care Check, one of the main providers for criminal record checks in the UK. “Our business has grown in the last 12 months, and this growth has reflected in our head count, and therefore in our office space to accommodate this growth,” said managing director Charlie Eason. “When we compared both the one-off costs and the ongoing costs of transitioning the business to a remote working structure, we found that there was little to no cost saving. What’s more, working together as one team in the office is an irreplaceable feeling.”

The Care Check team appreciate what Charlie calls “a family feel” in the office environment and he advises SME leaders to think beyond costs alone when deciding on their office footprint strategy.

“There are many factors that you should consider outside of this when looking to reduce or increase office space,” he said. “The camaraderie of your team, your contributions to the local area and economy, and the mindset that you want your business to operate with are all important factors to consider. For some businesses transitioning to work from home and reducing office space will work, for others it won’t.”

Remote working means less opportunities like this one from the Care Check team

Make collaborative decisions

Consultation is essential when deciding on office space, according to Lucinda Sloane of commercial property consultants Making Moves. “Ask your employees what they want and where they are most productive,” she said. “This simple act of asking for and, crucially, responding proactively to feedback is hugely beneficial to ensuring employee engagement and buy-in to changing work patterns and agile workspaces.”

SME leaders should determine the business need for the agile workplace by identifying which tasks can be completed where. “For example, the physical office provides the perfect place for project working – this hive of creativity therefore needs collaborative spaces,” added Lucinda. “Opportunities for independent working in contrast – either through working remotely or in-office breakout booths – ensures the job gets done, these micro-environments allow employees to complete high-focus tasks without interruption.”

Decisions to downsize shouldn’t simply be based on economic considerations, pointed out Donald Lindsay, people operations director at FreeAgent, a cloud-based accounting software provider.

“There are many other factors such as company culture, productivity and employee needs that must be considered,” he said. “I think that a better approach for many businesses may actually be to look at hybrid working, think about how to make it successful, and then to adapt their existing working spaces to support it. Provided a business can afford to do so, it is potentially more beneficial to take the time to experiment with business premises and see what kind of arrangement will be most beneficial for employers and employees going forward.”

Toast Ale beer – food wastage
Case Study.

Have a look at our in-depth interview with Toast Ale's Louisa Ziane

The key questions

“The strategy question can be distilled down to three key considerations: what do employees really want, how much space is needed and how is it going to be used?” said Tom Helliwell, director of strategy and change management, EMEA at Unispace, a business and commercial interior design consultancy. “It’s key to ensure that data is informing our global strategy for returning to the office – a strategy based on employees’ needs and behaviours, rather than guesswork and speculation. If companies get this wrong, they run the risk of shrinking their space too far, too fast.”

Research published by Unispace reveals that while 52 per cent of companies expect a “return to a new normal” by the end of Q3, 35 per cent believe that a lack of workplace strategy is the most significant barrier being faced.

Tom advises business leaders to take a data-led approach. “This is where space utilisation data and predictive analytics can unlock strategic insights about how the post-coronavirus workplace will function – from basic occupancy levels to real-time analysis of in-office footfall and employee behaviours.”

Key takeaways

Now is the time to think about how you want your business to be operating in two, five or ten years time.

While you can't please everyone, involving your people will ensure your company's working environment is representative of general senitment.

While you might not think office spaces and data go hand in hand, using utilisation data and other forms will help eliminate guesswork and speculation.