Pause, breathe… reset?

With businesses stepping out, bleary-eyed and blinking into the sun, focus shifts onto what shape the future will bring for offices and, crucially, what part those businesses will play in moulding that shape. Naturally, some spaces are already more fit for this new future than others, but perhaps they can be seen as a benchmark for those that face more of a challenge getting Covid compliant. The built environment accounts for around 40% of global emissions and so this is not someone else’s problem. Change needs to be made.

However, with all this frenzied activity, perhaps now is the time to take stock, to see this disaster as an opportunity to make some changes. The climate crisis (remember that) has gone nowhere and, though mental health awareness has temporarily shifted towards issues we are facing with working from home, it is still a pressing concern for office workers. We should make the most of this time to see what can be done to make things better when offices 2.0 are back online so we do not sleepwalk straight into another crisis. Labour has recently published their proposals for a green recovery that recognises the need to kickstart the economy. Labour wants to create a “zero-carbon army of young people” who would be employed to implement a number of green initiatives, such as planting trees and insulating buildings. Perhaps now is the time for the real estate sector to embrace this effort and help shape the zeitgeist and push forward the discussion on what can be done to reverse global warming?

While offices are dormant, building owners and occupiers can run tests on their operations and services to make sure they are running as efficiently as possible. They can explore whether switches to renewable energy and away from fossil fuel can be made and use other natural intervention points (lease expiries, refurbishments, redevelopments) to implement these improvements, reduce their carbon footprint and future-proof their buildings. Remote and home working is going to continue, but employers must recognise that there is no one size fits all; while the technology appears to be holding up well, more can be done to protect mental health and build up resilience. More too can be done with the office - nature can be brought inside, including natural light and natural ventilation, through the use of natural materials in design. These have demonstrative benefits for mental and physical wellbeing. Proximity to green space is vital too. The pandemic is shining a light on the symbolic importance of our offices and the mental health agenda is only just starting to be understood – both landlords and occupiers have a role to play in designing out disparity and loneliness, and using space to foster connectivity and innovation.

Density is bound to be looked at in the light of social distancing measures, but it is not going to disappear as a metric. It is easy to forget the positives that density brings, and we should remember that it is a product of our society – people want to connect, want to network and want to interact. Isolation needs to be combated, but so too does overcrowding. Will we see companies taking more space in a building? Will we see suburban hubs – small, local, spaces for employees to use day to day – being used in conjunction with the HQ? There is a natural reticence to using public transport, so the appeal of these neighbourhood offices is obvious.

Happily, the UK is already at the forefront of the healthy building revolution – there are more WELL Standard Certified buildings here than in any other country and we are second for Fitwell certifications – so we have already made a good start, but it is just the start. Buildings need to be healthy, clean, inspirational and adapted to the new normal and the behavioural changes that this brings.