Uncategorized | June 16, 2021

Thoughts on Office Reoccupation after Covid-19

The British Council of Offices have published a briefing note on the office of the future and our partner Suzanne Gill chaired the panel discussion when the note was launched.  Download the Briefing Note here. If you missed the debate you can watch it here. BCO Research Launch: Thoughts on office reoccupation after Covid-19 – YouTube  Clare Danahay of Be Inspired Design summarised the research and a lively debate with Leigh Dimelow  from TP Bennett, Chris Early from Telefónica, Peter Runacres from Argent and Will Poole-Wilson of Will + Partners followed.

The panel focussed on practical details, without delving into what are (for QIA) fascinating legal implications.. Telefónica have employed staff on hybrid working arrangements for over twelve years now; TP Bennett are experimenting with a variety of measures in Manchester.  Both of these approaches need consideration of your staff employment contracts: do they include a geographical mobility clause allowing you to require people to work from home or compelling you to provide them with a desk in a particular location?  Another looming challenge for managers is the “mid-week mountain” – if people are only in the office three days a week, can you make it compulsory to smooth that attendance out over five days? 

People can adapt relatively quickly to hybrid working but buildings can’t. Right now many companies and property managers are carrying out work to make offices and common parts of buildings more Covid-secure.  It’s clear that ventilation is key. One of the reasons that tenants need a licence to alter is the impact of works on the mechanical and electrical systems in the building, so do allow time for this process.  In a multi-let building, tenants might need to engage with landlords or managing agents to see what can be done to improve the indoor air quality – that’s not wording we’d expect in an existing lease, but a willing landlord might agree it’s a service in the interests of the occupiers of the building as a whole. 

In some ways adaptation to a Covid-resilient world is easier in the long term. New buildings can be designed accordingly.  The developers on the panel were challenged to think about whether allowing 20% of a building for its core would be enough in future, if people need more space in shared hallways, multiple access routes and lower lift occupancy. Some touchless solutions, such as building security systems using facial recognition software, are available at the moment but are felt to be too invasive by the people having to use them. The employment law team at Wedlake Bell often tell QIA that the relationship of trust between employee and employer is key to any changes which are introduced.

We discussed the “hub and spoke” model, with a prestige head office as one of the best branding messages any company could have. For the supporting “spoke” offices elsewhere though, the panel predicted a much quicker transaction time would be needed. This means landlords and developers offering fitted out offices where companies can just move in. Lawyers need to react to that market trend with the first draft of leases sent out in a balanced form, and wording catering for furniture forming part of the demise.  Not all companies are large enough to support a hub and spoke model, and not all staff have the space or broadband to work from home.  Will this lead to growth in third- party space such as co-working premises in the suburbs, or more explicit use of local pubs and cafes for working outside their busy periods? There are plenty of legal implications here but perhaps the main ones to highlight are confidentiality and data security. Will logging on to the coffee shop wifi expose your firm’s network to the risk of hackers? Will the glass walls so beloved of co-working spaces mean that your hot new idea is in the public realm before you get to copyrights and patents?

Every business and every building has its own unique set of requirements. The legal implications and advice follow from those, and go far beyond the realm of landlord and tenant. One thing seemed clear to the panel though – the office is here to stay.