Reimagining Offices: Are New Regulations Needed?

Stuart Rogers
Once we figure out what tomorrow’s office is actually for, how will pandemic-safe design evolve and be regulated?

A search for ‘post-Covid office’ brings up 6,540,000,000 results, endless speculation of what it might look like, how it might feel, what it might mean to work in the office of the post-pandemic future.

Offices which reopened have their operational adaptations in place, with occupiers now checking their plans can flex in and out of changing levels of local lockdown. Meanwhile the developer market shows significant regional variation and the RICS Global Commercial Property Monitor suggests offices face three key changes: organisations reducing their overall footprint, a shift in location from urban to suburban, and a greater emphasis on employee health and wellbeing. 

As thoughts turn to future office location and design, the wider context is the question of precisely what purpose tomorrow’s office should serve. One thing we’ve learned is that most office workers can work satisfactorily from home. So maybe we no longer need the office and employers can move it off the balance sheet?

Of course for individual workers it’s more nuanced: there are those who love the flexibility or the time/money savings on their commute (McKinsey research found that 80 per cent of people questioned enjoy working from home). There are those who have no comfortable workspace or privacy; those who are lonely; those who are now fearful of public transport and the urban environment.

And let’s not forget the potentially negative effect on the training and career development of younger workers (and the knock-on effect on succession planning). In BCO research, 71 per cent said the office is important for learning and networking.

A ‘mixed’ working style, with time split between office and home, seems likely. Everything points to the office as the collaboration environment, supported by decentralised satellite locations and touchdown spaces.

As to what it looks and feels like, we may see a shift away from the staff satisfaction and social wellbeing focus that has driven occupier requirements in the last five years. The gyms, barista bars, innovative breakout spaces and games areas became the high-end norm. Will the focus now shift away from the luxury hotel feel, in favour of greater environmental wellbeing and safety? If those glossy amenities are needed to persuade people back to the office, will they remain affordable?

Amid the current adaptations and the many future predictions, what changes can we expect to standards and regulations? A new asset class may emerge, based on the expectation that the office is not just safe and healthy, but actually certified as safe and healthy. A new set of metrics could change the way we design workspace, to accommodate the focus on wellbeing, the desired behaviours in how we physically interact, and the possibility of future pandemics.

This could incorporate occupational densities and individual spatial provision; size of circulation spaces and guided one-way routing; ratios for task/collaboration/meeting space; lifts capacity; improved HVAC systems; outdoor amenity space, openable windows and touchless technologies. Mental wellbeing measures, including provision for social interaction, access to nature/outdoors and exercise, are also important considerations.

This issue is part of the debate around the built environment’s role in maintaining public health, and it needs attention from policymakers, regulators, stakeholders, developers, planners and designers. Throughout history, epidemics have disrupted and reshaped cities. Hong Kong, for example, learned lessons from the 2003 SARS epidemic. The Hong Kong Planning Standard and Guidelines (HKPSG) were amended to improve city-building ventilation principles.

Here in the UK, we’re going to need to change our approach, even if we begin with dense urban environments only. Where should the responsibility lie? We may see revised office guidelines from BSI, BREEAM, LEED, BCO and WELL Building Standard, but unless regulated and mandated, there’s a danger of tickbox approaches. Building regulations and other policy mechanisms are perhaps the way forward. We need to think about capital and operating costs, equity (safe and healthy in all workplaces, not just the high end), enforcement and quality control.

Faithful+Gould is involved in multiple regeneration projects across the UK, where all the above factors are being considered. The occupier demand still exists in many locations, but it feels like we’re awaiting a product that can lead the way and demonstrate the office of the future.

Tomorrow’s resilient office is an evolving agenda, with more questions than answers. So…what sort of office environment are you hoping for?

Our workspace team specialises in managing people and workspace change, based on a solid evidence base for behavioural, operational and design changes in the workplace. We help clients consider the key factors around people, property and technology, so they can create realistic, cost-effective, safe and compliant environments.

Written by