As the region’s property community draws up plans for a phased move out of lockdown, the process of making a safe return to the office is being approached with caution, according to managing directors across Manchester and Liverpool.
Consultancy Avison Young has told its employees they can continue to work from home for the rest of 2020 to address staff anxiety over a return to the workplace, after the Government published guidance on safely returning to work yesterday.
Steve Cowperthwaite, managing director of Avison Young in Liverpool, said: “As a business, our culture is very much people first and we want to provide people with the flexibility to work from home if needs be, and be cognisant of the fact that people face different challenges at home.”
Avison Young’s announcement is not the first time the consultancy has led from the front on a response to coronavirus. The company was one of the first to pull out of both the Cannes MIPIM property expo and the rescheduled Paris event. Cowperthwaite said he anticipated other firms to make similar calls on a return to the office.
Euan Kellie, director of planning consultancy Euan Kellie Property Solutions, said Avison Young’s decision was a “good call”, and confirmed that his company would adopt a similar approach.
“People have got into a way of working and I think phasing things back in and giving people the option is the right way to do it.
“It has been a very strange eight weeks or so, and I don’t think it is going to be a case of pressing the button and people returning to the office like before.”
Steve Parry, managing director of Liverpool-based Ion Developments, which is close to agreeing terms to lease a new office, said there were no immediate plans to return to the workplace. He predicted that the office as a concept, and its interior design, would become more important in the future.
“We will spend a bit more time looking at the internal fit-out and how we can incorporate what we have learned from remote working into the office, and have more facilities for remote calls, and Microsoft Teams or Zoom meetings.
“The team is probably working closer now than it did when we were in the office because we are all on a Zoom meeting every morning as opposed to being all over the country and seeing your colleagues once a week.”
Kellie agreed, and said that while his team already has a strong spirit, the period of uncertainty had “fortified” this.
He said he was taking advice from three main areas of the Government’s guidance in terms of how best to tackle the issue of returning to the office.
“We have got to take into account what the Government is saying, and [Manchester-based developer] Bruntwood owns our building so we also will take guidance from them, as well as from health and safety advisors on measures we should put in place, like desk spacing and hand sanitiser.”
Adam Hall, managing director of Liverpool-headquartered architect Falconer Chester Hall, said that the practice would continue to work from home “as far as possible” but that plans were in place for a phased return to the office, which would see the implementation of requisite safety measures.
“Prior to lockdown, we created a business continuity plan and this has evolved during the last seven weeks to now focus on measures once lockdown eases.”
He explained that the workforce would be split into two teams, across each of the company’s London, Manchester and Liverpool studios. One team would be in the office and another team would work from home. This would work on a two-week rotation.
The safety measures would include distanced desk arrangements, a clean desk policy and flexibility on travel to and from work. All meetings would be via video conferencing unless face to face is essential.
Additionally, the breakout spaces would be rearranged with hand sanitisers and face masks provided.
While Avison Young is offering flexibility to its workers, Cowperthwaite said work is underway to ready the office for the return of its workers.
“The reality is, to apply social distancing measures in the office is going to see a reduced capacity certainly in the short term. We are looking at all the different issues associated with implementing social distancing within the office.
“Before we can even contemplate going back to work, we will need a deep clean of office spaces which have lain empty for a period of time. There are a lot of things that need to be done and it is important that you don’t rush into things.
“We won’t be making any knee-jerk reactions.”