A return to the office will require smarter buildings

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It’s now a year since the national lockdown across the UK commenced and although the vaccine rollout offers great hope, the government’s scientific advisors continue to warn us that the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over. We’re told that we can expect a third wave of the virus to hit towards the end of the summer or early autumn.

While we’ve seen a remarkable adjustment to the way we work over the past year with the widespread and successful adoption of remote working, made possible through ubiquitous broadband access and various work and video conferencing platforms, it would be a mistake to think we’ve seen the decline of the physical office.

While some business leaders have indicated a willingness to offer 100 percent remote work as an option moving forward, others, particularly in sectors such as finance and banking, are advocating for a return to the office at the earliest possible opportunity.

What’s most likely is that over the coming months, we’re going to see the emergence of hybrid models, with a mix of remote working and physical attendance at workplaces.

Broadly, business owners have come to the conclusion that offices will have to change dramatically if their teams are to be able to work safely. For many, speculation about the end of the office, and a future of widespread remote working, was replaced at the end of the first lockdown with a newfound appreciation of the joy and the utility of working with others in a shared environment. We’re likely to see the same attitudes re-emerge in the coming months, as the third lockdown ends.

So far, almost all the discussion around the evolution of the office has pertained to its design or managing the flow of people in and out of buildings. And this is important: there’s no doubt that physical distancing is an effective way to slow the spread of the virus, that educating employees on what they should and shouldn’t do is paramount, and that controlling the number of people in a confined space at any one time is necessary. But in order truly to address the problem of returning to the office safely, we need to start thinking about the role that ‘smart’ buildings can play, both in facilitating the changes already suggested and in overcoming physical limitations to keeping people safe at work.

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