Last week I was on two different client sites – yes actually outside of my home, away from my screen, bottom half dressed and shoes on, finally.
The physical and behavioural changes imposed by Covid are stark. Both places were healthcare sites, both admin buildings. Mostly empty, loads of signs reminding you to keep your distance, wash your hands, wear your mask. The few people I saw in the corridors were all wearing masks. In both places I was meeting a small number of people and we were in large Boardrooms where physical distancing was easy to manage. We talked of course about how they were managing work, how well people had taken to Microsoft Team meetings, the benefits, and challenges, of working remotely, the personal and domestic impact and continuing implications. But in both places the message was very clear – we expect this to continue ‘til the end of the year at least. Even in the longer term neither could imagine a return to the routine of large physical gatherings where everyone travelled across the patch just to meet for a couple of hours. Virtual working, in some form is likely to become part of their new way of working.
So, what of the space? I’ve worked in and around health care for long enough to know that space is usually a premium. I’ve met with enough people crammed into shared offices perched on the edge of someone’s desk to know that physical space rarely grows with increase in staff and people quickly get used to making room where none exists. Large meeting rooms are a premium. Both clients told me the rooms we were in are usually booked back to back all week. We have designed and used space broadly around the way we have worked. But it is increasingly unlikely that lots of office space, lots of formal meeting rooms, some small group space is not going to fit new ways of working.
Now might be the time to start thinking really creatively about how we design and use space that allows – encourages – new ways of working. When people get together to work, if you want them to be creative, innovate, inclusive, generative then there is now an opportunity to reflect that kind of activity in how the space is set out. Formal meetings can happen virtually, virtual space can be used for transacting business – the creative informal space can be opened up; no desks, comfortable chairs, space to think, talk, engage and interact. As well as rethinking the space this reshapes the use and productivity of people’s time.
I know the same conversations are already going on in other industries. My private sector clients with huge office spaces in London are already rethinking whether they need that space at all and if they do how they redesign it to reflect how they want people to be when they come into shared spaces.
There will be lots of learning from how people have adapted to working during Covid. If one of them is the end of formal, set piece meetings with people travelling from all over to sit around large tables and do groundhog day work and being replaced by socially engaging, creative and inclusive get togethers then that can only be good thing surely?