The Office Reboot: FX x Nulty roundtable

FX and Nulty assembled a panel of experts to share their visions of what the office will look like after lockdown

Words by Toby Maxwell

In these most uncertain of times, one thing we can be sure of is that the workplace is going to change significantly as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. From shifting work patterns to reduce the number of people in a building at one time, to reconfiguring spaces to minimise contact with people and surfaces, by all accounts we really are talking about a revolution.

So as employees return to work, what will the future office look like, and how different will it be from what has gone before? William Poole-Wilson, managing director at Will & Partners, said: ‘We’ve done projects in the past that were heavily based on “no-touch” environments. There are trading floors already where you can walk around and not need to touch anything. For me, the overlay of “health zones” over “layouts” is the big change in terms of design. That in turn may or may not change densities, but ultimately volumes matter. Whether you change the density in the building or not, the volume of the space probably won’t change, just its use and configuration. So the future may not necessarily be about less or more office space, more just a different use of office space and how it works.’

William Poole-Wilson, MD, Will & PartnersWilliam Poole-Wilson, MD, Will & Partners

He added that health matters because in the past there has been a correlation between absenteeism and presenteeism. ‘What we have now is a clear causation for health being affected in an office. That in turn has a knockon effect for wellbeing. We have much better evidence for what affects mental wellbeing in an office, physical health in an office. This was an increasing layer of design anyway, but I think we’re going to run a bit faster.’

Ben Coleman, development director, Leos InternationalBen Coleman, development director, Leos International

Ben Coleman, development director at Leos International, said: ‘From a developer perspective, things were hotting up in terms of creative solutions for increasing density, only to now find that all of a sudden we’re talking about the 2m rule. If it does pan out in that way – with effectively a 6ft space around each desk – then that’s not great from our perspective and we would probably be looking less at the office as a use if that’s the case.’

A golden chance of change for the better?

Lee Penson, CEO at Penson, believes that this year’s events have provided a one-off chance to reassess everything we know about the workplace, on a scale that would have been otherwise impossible: ‘I’ve had a number of interesting calls from senior execs and CEOs and the conversations have made me think that Covid-19 has triggered the first ever global workplace survey; at one moment, in everyone’s lives, in every organisation, and pretty much across every country. It has meant that people are coming up with new views and ideas, and forming new habits in how they work.

Roxanne Quesnel, director, project management, Turner & TownsendRoxanne Quesnel, director, project management, Turner & Townsend

‘For years I’ve been saying how crazy it is that everyone leaves home at the same time in the morning, cramming into overcrowded trains, buses and roads, even though everyone is doing a completely different job, working on a schedule that they have to work to rather than a globalised efficient timescale that works best for them and the business. I really hope it is going to loosen up the nine-to-five routine. It’s important not to rush, though – let’s stop, think and learn from this and slowly build a response.’

Lee Penson, chief executive off icer, PensonLee Penson, chief executive officer, Penson

The panel discussed whether a shift towards homeworking could become something for the long term, even after the threat from the coronavirus has largely subsided. But might employers look to pay their staff reduced salary for homeworking, given certain assumptions about the more limited productivity for some roles? Oli Morgan, director at Blend Technology Consultants, said: ‘I don’t think remote working will be considered as inferior to working in the office, so it shouldn’t be subject to a reduced salary. We were seeing a trend towards remote working anyway but this will just see it massively accelerated. I dread to think what it would have been like for some companies if this had happened five or so years ago because at least now so much has migrated to the cloud and so it is relatively simple for people to function remotely.’

Dr Craig Knight, founding director, Identity RealizationDr Craig Knight, founding director, Identity Realization. Image Credit: Tim Pestridge

Roxanne Quesnel, director of project management at Turner & Townsend, said: ‘The younger members of our team have said that their learning has begun to slow down a little because of not being in the office environment and learning from other colleagues. They are not able to learn from the wider activities that happen in the workplace because all of the conversations we have when we work remotely are much more deliberate.’

Dr Craig Knight, founding director of Identity Realization, said: ‘It’s interesting to look at how well people work in the office compared to at home, and roughly speaking it’s the same. Working at home may mean some distractions during the day, but most people tend to make up for any lost time by working a little past their usual hours, for example. Roxanne is right though, the office will be needed. Using Zoom is great, but it’s not a substitute for face-to-face communication. Companies may have learnt that working from home is viable, but the office will remain an important part of a business.’

Adaptable solutions

Given that every single organisation is different, it stands to reason that the solutions for a new era of workplaces will need to be varied and highly adaptable. Tania Adir, co-founder of co-working office space firm Uncommon, said: ‘We house companies from two to thousands of employees and what has become clear is that those that are around three, five or 10 employees can very well manage working from home for an extended period of time. But once you breach the 20-25 employee level, it becomes quite difficult to be able to form that team or community when working remotely.’

Tania Adir, co-founder, UncommonTania Adir, co-founder, Uncommon

Adir also pointed out that in determining an appropriate level of density in the office, the bigger picture requires a solution for transportation into cities, adding that there is little point taking such steps in the offices if everyone has to stand so close to each other on the train during their commute. Even so, she believes there will be notable changes in approach to our office spaces: ‘Up to now, it has only been the real pioneering companies who have seriously considered wellness within the workplace, how that affects productivity and the bottom line. What we will most likely see now though is an acceleration of that thought, with more employers understanding that it is a crucial part of their P&L and going for buildings with WELL accreditation or other certification.’

Linzi Cassels, principle design director, London, Perkins & Will, said: ‘I think we’re all questioning the office and what it is for. Many of us have rather enjoyed working remotely, and in some ways I have felt closer to some of our colleagues through having virtual meetings in each other’s homes and having to care about each other’s wellbeing, whereas in the normal rush of things in the office you may not even stop to ask how someone is.’

Linzi Cassels, principal design director, London, Perkins & WillLinzi Cassels, principal design director, London, Perkins & Will

She added that those who crave a return to the office environment may find it to be somewhat disappointing when it does happen, pointing out that distancing restrictions will mean it is not quite as it was before, and that large events or meetings will most likely have to continue to take place virtually in any case.

Taking practical steps

Oli Morgan suggested a range of practical measures that could be implemented to help manage the new ways of working. Basic steps that could be introduced easily and quickly include booking systems for resources, desks and meeting rooms, and tracking apps so that staff numbers in the building can be monitored and controlled. For businesses that already operate in smart-capable buildings, there are even more things that can be achieved he says, such as controlling the flow through access gates, locking off doors when certain limits for an area have been reached, or utilising usage stats to tailor the cleaning requirements for each part of the building.

Amy Cooper, partner, London project & development services, Cushman & WakefieldAmy Cooper, partner, London project & development services, Cushman & Wakefield

Penson adds: ‘This is perhaps the only opportunity that society is likely to have in the modern world to regroup, and it’s a great chance for all of us as designers, consultants, developers and investors, to help to create a new healthier, freer way of life that could ultimately be more efficient for each individual. I would be hugely disappointed if we all went back to “normal”.’

While the lockdown has stopped many businesses – retail and leisure in particular – in their tracks, many other sectors have managed to maintain a semblance of business as usual, some using solely homeworking. Does this mean that some sectors may decide that they simply do not need offices anymore? Amy Cooper, partner at Cushman & Wakefield, said: ‘I think the biggest surprise may come from the financial sector. Most other sectors have previously taken up an element of remote working, collaboration space, or shared space, but for some of the financial firms with trading floors, the overwhelming feedback over recent years has been that homeworking simply does not work for them, that everyone needs to be at a desk and have their six screens. Although many conventional trading floors remain, of course, many of these firms have been forced to work from home with some aspects of their operations and they appear to be working very well.’

Oli Morgan, director, Blend Technology ConsultantsOli Morgan, director, Blend Technology Consultants

Leos International’s Coleman added: ‘It’s all very positive, but office space will still be needed across all sectors. Whether densities change or not, there will still need to be a physical place for employees to come together.’

Paul Nulty, founder of Nulty who hosted the discussion, asked if the key may lie in the use of amenity space: ‘We’ve seen hotels really focus on the shared spaces within their buildings over recent years. Might this now be something that becomes more important for the office workplace?’

Shaping strategy

Quesnel of Turner & Townsend, said: ‘I think it will be interesting to see what senior management decide to do with their spaces – it is in many ways to do with the question of what strategic direction they want their organisations to take. For a business that is looking to diversify and innovate, there will be a need for spaces in which employees can collaborate, share thoughts and ideas, and have “free-thought” conversations. So those who are setting the strategic directions of their businesses will need to think very carefully about how those spaces are going to be used, and, of course, how the design of those spaces will make this possible.’

‘Up to now, we’ve been designing offices and spaces to enhance the benefits of that chance interaction, to increase integration between different parts of the business,’ said Cooper. ‘So going forward, the traditional workplace setting may be reduced – the office could still be the place for integration, sharing ideas and attending workshops, but all of the individual “quiet” work could be done at home.’

Paul Nulty, founder, NultyPaul Nulty, founder, Nulty

Nulty is concerned that some sectors may suffer more than others from a move away from the shared working environment: ‘I fear a little for the creative industries because, for me, creativity comes from interaction and collaboration. For example, I want to see and touch those samples. It’s very hard doing that so well from home, and even in the workplace with social distancing in place.’

Linzi Cassels of Perkins & Will, agreed, but added: ‘I do wonder if we will see some clustering of creative types. I heard about an architect’s practice that is going to give up its office and when they need a team meeting, simply go to a co-working space. Maybe bigger creative businesses might host spaces for other smaller creatives? I know that is happening already to some extent but perhaps some further interaction may develop in this way.’ Poole-Wilson agrees there could be some evolution in this area: ‘Co-working spaces at the moment tend to be incredibly generic and do not always work for all types of businesses, so we may see some evolve to create different hubs to suit specific needs. It will be fascinating watching what happens there.’

Time to listen

Ultimately, Dr Knight of Identity Realization believes the answer lies in listening carefully to what people actually want from the workplace: ‘Of course, we have to have the social distancing, but as we move forward the “architecture of bureaucracy” is always beatable by asking people what they want. So as they move from home space to office space – as well as the other way around as businesses adapt – we can find out what they want, and incorporate the genius of design in order to deliver exactly that. In cases where that has been done, the results can be fantastic, with increases in wellbeing, increases in productivity, and even increases in intelligence. There is a real chance to do all this now.’

Penson concluded: ‘I couldn’t agree more. As workplace designers, one minute we’re talking about how open-plan is the best thing since sliced bread, and then 10 years later we are saying the complete opposite, and then another decade on going back the other way. There’s a problem with that cycle, and I’d hate to see us come out of all this with just the next fad, without stopping and thinking. What we deliver next has to work around the people, their routines, and what makes them efficient. It could be a real game-changer.’


Theresa Dowling (Chair) Group editorial director, FX Magazine

Paul Nulty (Host) Founder, Nulty

Amy Cooper Partner, London project & development services, Cushman & Wakefield

Ben Coleman Development director, Leos International

Dr Craig Knight Founding director, Identity Realization

Lee Penson CEO, Penson

Linzi Cassels Principal design director, London, Perkins & Will

Oli Morgan Director, Blend Technology Consultants

Roxanne Quesnel Director, project management, Turner & Townsend

Tania Adir Co-founder, Uncommon

William Poole-Wilson Managing director, Will & Partners

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