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Flexibility can lead to a safer and healthier environment for your workforce

As more corporate employees return to the workplace – with many feeling hesitant – Andrew Butterworth, Commercial Director of Flexible Space Association member Bruntwood Works, explains why the workspace must not revert to days gone by and why wellbeing and creature comforts have to be prioritised just as much as safety.

As the government relaxes its guidance on office spaces and more people venture back to the workplace, it’s become clear that while the way we work may have changed, corporate environments still have an important role to play. However, with many returning after months in isolation, anxieties are expected to be high.

This nervousness takes a variety of forms. Many people heading back to the office are parents, whose children are going back to school for the first time since March – something which is creating a seismic and emotional shift in their lives and which will affect how ‘present’ they are at work. For others, a return to work will give them a much needed sense of normality as we emerge from a hazy, uncertain period.  

There’s no doubt the return to workplaces is key in supporting the economic recovery of our cities, and there is pressure on businesses to prioritise making their environments safe, secure, and easy to navigate in line with a whole new way of living that we are still getting used to. However, it’s imperative that offices are also able to offer certain creature comforts that speak more to our mental wellbeing than our physical health, as we try to collectively recover and adapt.

As one of the largest property providers in the UK, Bruntwood Works blends work and lifestyle to create spaces that encourage interaction and forge communities. Our workspaces are design led, people driven and socially responsible. They provide a level of flexibility in space, time and location that companies and employees have been demanding for years - something which Covid has significantly accelerated. 

A YouGov survey conducted last year found that only four in ten (42%) UK adults worked flexibly and that for 61%, a ‘good job’ constituted having the ‘flexibility to work the hours and patterns that suit them’. Covid will have caused employers to start thinking very differently - in the way Bruntwood Works has already been thinking for years. For us, flexible working isn’t just about changing work patterns; it’s about changing where and how we work, and adapting spaces to the needs of our customers. There can be no ‘one-size fits all’ or ‘nine-to-five’ approach.

When we approached our Greater Manchester customers through our Return to Work survey during lockdown, around 60% were positive that they wanted to get back into the workplace. We’ve been working hard to understand the reasons of the 40% who don’t.

Health and wellbeing were unsurprisingly the main priorities, while others said that despite increased safety measures - such as observing the 1m-plus rule of social distancing, introducing one way systems and frequent cleaning of communal areas - they would still feel uncomfortable in the workplace. 

In response, we formulated a new project team dedicated to solving the issues raised in the feedback from our customers and workforce. We looked at details like the amount of greenery in a room, more engaging signage, which technologies would allow for greater flexibility and how we could configure sit-down space to accommodate interaction from a distance.

Some concerns went beyond the physical workspace. To support those who were worried about the process of travelling to and from the office, we’ve been improving our Cycle to Work scheme and our ‘hub and spoke’, regional office set-up to name just a couple of initiatives.

We’ve had several people come forward to say that working from home has affected their mental health and that they don’t have the right environment to work productively from. Many responders have said they miss their colleagues, meeting new people and a collaboration space.

We’ve been expanding and adapting our exclusive online gateway, The Bruntwood Collective, that enables our customers to connect and collaborate with up to 50,000 people across the entire Bruntwood group, with many virtual wellbeing and social activities taking place and will hopefully lead to several face-to-face occasions in the near future.

As business leaders, we must keep speaking to our workforce and customers, as well as being flexible and accommodate the best we can for the people we employ and serve.


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