Returning to work in the nation’s capital could mean economic revival, but businesses wonder whether it can be done safely: design and build experts prove that it can.
If the 1918 Flu Pandemic is anything to go by, much about Coronavirus could conceivably remain a mystery more than 100 years into the future. One thing is certain, however, and that is the Government’s continued pressure on London-based companies to send their employees back to the office in an attempt to stave off further economic decline.
Many businesses have already begun their workplace reintegration, with a survey conducted by London First revealing 74% of London-based firms had phased up to 20% of their workforce back to the office before August. As summer holidays draw to a close, those numbers are expected to increase. But economic upturn depends on strengthened confidence in public health and safety measures as well as those in the workplace, and London businesses are taking a reserved approach to their workplace reintegration.
While most businesses are wondering when they’ll be able to return to the office, leading office design company Oktra seem to have found a solution: they’ve been gradually returning to their Clerkenwell headquarters since early June. In fact, many of their teams have been going to work throughout the pandemic. With the Government granting the construction industry continued operation in support of economic endurance, Oktra’s on-site teams have been using COVID-specific health and safety procedures to sustain project delivery without interruption – and without a single reported case of coronavirus.
“Because we were dealing with COVID through our construction sites, we understood what was required to keep the sites open and we transferred that into how we proposed to open the office. There was no confusion for us,” says Oktra Group Health and Safety Director Martin Peck.
Oktra’s workplace reintegration strategy provides businesses with the framework they need to plan for, manage and successfully complete their return to the workplace. It details the ways that office design and office use converge to create a comprehensive approach to heightened health and safety precautions, and it’s exactly how Oktra have conducted their own office reintegration.
“Behaviour has always been first and foremost: design, even though we’re a design and build company, has always taken a backseat. We put people first so their behaviour in COVID-considered spaces became a top-of-list concern,” explains Oktra Group Technical Design Director Claire Elliott.
By tailoring physical and behavioural components of the work environment, Oktra have created a safe and sustainable workplace without compromising the aesthetic components that make great workspace an inspiring place to be. Their Clerkenwell office is every bit the showroom-meets-gallery space one expects of creative industry leaders, just with cohesively-branded social distancing signage, added hand-washing stations and complimentary sanitation supplies and PPE.
Some of the most critical safety measures are undetectable at first glance. A digital desk-booking system allows employees to reserve desks on their days in the office – while the office has been open since June, employees are now returning for two days each week in September and an expected three days each week in October. The app-controlled booking ensures every socially-distanced desk is only used by one person each day before a comprehensive sanitation process in the evening. One-way navigation is illustrated by signs with bespoke patterns that mirror the colourful interior, and comes to life as employees move through the space.
It’s not surprising that Oktra have led London’s return to work during COVID-19. Many of their clients are a little more apprehensive about their return, which is why the design teams have worked closely with each one to develop tailored design schemes and reintegration strategies to fit each company.
Claire describes Oktra’s working relationship with their clients, revealing that they have “a lot of clients that were on site during COVID and have either opened since or have the ability to open when they’re ready to do so.” The design director is quick to add that “the biggest thing that our clients have been interested in is just coming along on our journey. It’s not been about us advising them or telling them what to do, it’s been about us telling our story: sharing what we’ve done and showing them how we’ve done it.”
Oktra are clear that their success depends upon their ability to communicate. “We’ve ensured our workplace remains safe by conducting, implementing and following the risk assessment of our workspace,” explains Martin. “We’re constantly monitoring it and making sure that it works, communicating to make sure everybody is aware of what’s happening. Then, when there are changes, we communicate that to the business.”
The same cross-company dialogue helped shape the design firm’s workplace reintegration. They’ve issued employee sentiment surveys at key points of the pandemic in order to constantly monitor their staff’s feelings surrounding their eventual return to work. “When we were opening our office, we needed to be able to predict what our people would be like when they came in. We created our Employee Sentiment Survey to better understand their fears and concerns, and then we adapted the environment to suit,” Claire says.
The return to the office looks different for different companies and depends on a range of factors including stakeholder sentiment and office location. But delaying the return too long could come with serious consequences: beyond the drop-off of organic interaction, businesses lose the creativity, productivity and innovation that come from shared workspace when they operate remotely.
Oktra’s staff are already benefitting from their phased return to the office. Head of People and Workplaces Lorna Killick shares that, “people’s mental wellbeing is improving. There’s a lot less virtual burnout and more collaboration. People are so happy to see each other and be able to get a change of scenery. We all signed up to work at this company because we wanted to be part of something – it’s being able to tap back into that creativity again and be inspired by other people, the ability to be spontaneous.”
Supporting local businesses is an added benefit of the return to the office. With a steady stream of employees working out of their London office, Oktra are helping bring much needed business back to a usually-bustling Leather Lane. However, the company’s return to their workspace is driven by a far more universal principle; people need people, and the workplace provides the kind of social proximity we need to do our best work.
To learn more about Oktra’s workplace reintegration strategy, visit oktra.co.uk