When we meet again: Top 10 Things to think about in return from lockdown

The ‘end’ of lockdown is now on the horizon. That will throw up a whole new set of challenges.

In this article Neil Toner, our Head of Real Estate, looks at his Top 10.

Just as business meetings in your pyjamas (bottom half) are becoming the new normal, it’s time to look towards what will happen on the ‘otherside’ of lockdown. When (and, as importantly, how) the lockdown will end is yet to be announced. But, it’s important that businesses are planning now.

The transition to working in lockdown, with only a few days’ notice, was challenging. The planning and effort that will be involved in a successful transition ‘back’ should not be underestimated. Here are my Top 10 list of things office based businesses should be considering.

1. RETURN TO BASE PROJECT TEAMS: For most office based businesses, the lack of advance warning, the fixed implementation date and the relative clarity as to what ‘full lockdown’ meant resulted in there being no choice but to transition to ‘fully agile’ in a few days. Whilst there were many complexities, the direction of travel and timetable was clear. Coming out of lockdown will not be so black and white. The process will be stepped gradually. That will mean that businesses have many more difficult choices to make and those choices will need to constantly evolve. Without an appropriate ‘end of lockdown’ project team, with authority to make wide ranging decisions, businesses will risk internal conflict and paralysis. That project team will need to be meeting regularly for many months to come.

2. EARNING TRUST: Employers and building owners will need to earn the trust of workers when it comes to the office environment. The threat currently posed by COVID-19 will not end anytime soon so staff are going to want to know how their working environment is being adapted to make it safe. This is not something that they will take for granted anymore. Management teams will need to develop appropriate strategies and plans and then communicate those clearly to staff.

3. TWO TIER WORKFORCE (AVOID): For various reasons, it is likely that some staff will not be able to return to the office as quickly as others. That might be because of underlying health conditions (many of which have been, for good or bad, invisible to employers previously). It might be because what used to be a long but straightforward commute is simply not possible. Whatever the reason, employers will need to make sure that that doesn’t lead to a two tier workforce – where people not in the office are overlooked or forgotten.

4. CALL THE SCRUB SQUAD: Cleaning is going to be a growth business – 24/7. Many offices had cleaning strategies based on a team arriving out of office hours and working their way through the building in one ‘sweep’. That is so last year. People will expect to see offices cleaned throughout the day. Again and again. Meeting rooms will have to have their surfaces disinfected after each meeting. Toilets and communal kitchens will need to be cleaned at least hourly (not necessarily in that order). This enhanced cleaning will be needed for two reasons; one, to physically stop the spread of the virus, the other is simply to build peoples’ confidence.

5. BACK TO THE OFFICE ‘TO DO’ (MAYBE ITS JUST ME): In my time away from the office, I’ve built up a pile of ‘to do’ actions that need to be attended to as and when I get back to the office. They range from the filing of certain paper based records through to getting documents (which, whilst important, aren’t particularly urgent) signed by the appropriate people. If I don’t action that pile within the first week of being back in the office, there is a real chance that I never will. It’s important for individuals to take stock and plan what they will need to do. If you don’t do it now, you never will.

6. DON’T LET A GOOD CRISIS GO TO WASTE: It’s not all bad. My grasp of communication technology has improved more in the last 6 weeks than it had in the previous 6 years – I can Microsoft Team with the best of them. I’ve finally broken my rule that any document over 3 pages long needs to be printed before I can read it – there will be trees that are alive in years to come that wouldn’t otherwise be. All Partner Zoom meetings are more focussed, more attended, more structured and, above all, shorter. Every cloud has a silver lining and COVID -19 is no different. Businesses should be ensuring that those silver linings are captured and developed in the years to come. That won’t happen without effort and it’s not a top down thing. All staff should be encouraged to dialogue about what their silver linings are and management should ensure that they have a mechanism to ensure that they are shared and adopted.

7. TECHNOLOGY WILL/ MAY BE OUR FRIEND: Necessity is the mother of invention. Architects and Building Technologists are already looking at how best to adapt our buildings to cope with what will develop as the new normal. The ‘touchless building’ where doors open without needing door handles to be turned and lifts are programmed to respond to a person’s mobile rather than having a communal keypad will be the way forward. Many of the larger office buildings are already looking at fitting thermal body cameras in their ground floor receptions to screen visitors. Not all these systems can be fitted in the next few weeks – but businesses will need to be looking at these technologies from now on, to see which are appropriate for them. Dialogue with stakeholders will be needed. Such technologies may be the ‘answer’ but, they bring with them a real fear of privacy invasion. That tension will need to be managed.

8. THE PAPERWORK: Most large businesses have a raft of well-developed policies and procedures covering issues from sickness through to travel expenses. All of those will need to be reviewed and adapted to the new world we face. Where once a business may have expected an employee to attend work unless they could demonstrate they were ill, employees will be expected to stay away from the office unless they are certain that they are well. Defaulting to public transport may not be the obvious choice it once was, where that is a key area of viral transmission and there will be entirely new areas of policy to consider from testing to face masks. The time and effort that this will take and the tricky issues that it will throw up should not be underestimated. HR teams are going to be busy.

9. FLEXIBILITY: Many businesses had already embraced flexible working and working from home. But many had not. The default was that staff were expected in the office during fixed hours unless they could demonstrate that they could work from home. Under the new normal, that will switch to people working from home unless one can demonstrate why coming into the office is important. And, once people are working from home, the precise hours they work is less easy to monitor and, frankly, less important – as long as they get the job done. This transition needs to be thought through and managed so that the benefits are accentuated and the risks minimised. The employment law aspects of working from home need to be carefully considered. Businesses should be thinking these issues through in consultation with their staff and other stakeholders. They should be doing that now. Oh, and people are going to want to dress down – all of the time.

10. INSURANCE: Many businesses are focusing on their current insurance policies at the moment. Are they covered for the additional costs and losses arising from lockdown? Many are finding they are more exposed than they expected. But, if they think the issues are tricky now – just wait until renewal. Insurers will be looking at the new risk profile of businesses in the new world. That is more than just the issue of business continuity insurance. Insurers are going to want to know how businesses are dealing with the new risks. If a business hasn’t adopted best practice to minimise viral transmission – will they face claims from employees who get ill? Working from home raises different health and safety risks for staff. Risks of supplier insolvency is a whole new ball game now.

The suddenness of the imposition of lockdown meant that businesses had no choice but to adapt quickly. The process of lifting lockdown will be a gradual one. That may lull people into a false sense that they have more time to adapt, but the challenges we will all face will be huge and urgent. And if businesses don’t tackle them as such, they will fail.

For more information, please contact Neil Toner.

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