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The steps three business leaders are taking to build better workspaces during the coronavirus

The coronavirus crisis forced many business owners to rethink their workplaces. Companies adapted to meet government guidelines, enable staff to work from home and look after people’s mental health.

The second lockdown and extension of the furlough scheme provided some clarity. Employers have the experience of working through a lockdown and more visibility of the government support that will be available.

We spoke to three business leaders about the practical measures they’re taking to meet the new demands and what that means for their long-term requirements of office space.

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Understanding the long-term need for workspace

Rachael Power
LoveCrafts’ head of people Rachael Power envisions offices becoming more collaborative in the future

Rachael Power, head of people at LoveCrafts, has had a whirlwind of a year.

LoveCrafts’ team includes 140 people across three territories. Headcount has remained steady this year, but when its offices in New York and London came up for renewal they decided to let both leases expire.

They prepared coronavirus secure offices, expecting the team to return to work on 1 September. However, many staff didn’t want to come back immediately.

“We’ve learnt lessons along the way. We know we want to go back to some form of physical space, but it’s not going to be rows of people working on laptops. It’s going to be a much more collaborative space where people go once or twice a week,” Rachael said.

The plan is to look for new space from spring onwards.

Introducing a smart working policy

Flexible working allows employees to work around personal commitments, including childcare, and at the time of day they’re most effective. 

LoveCrafts introduced a smart working policy about a month before coronavirus hit the news. It included three main priorities and has helped manage the impact of the pandemic:

  1. People were allowed to work from home occasionally
  2. Staff had to work core hours, from 10am to 4pm, but could decide when to work outside of that time
  3. They started trialling hot desks

Food branding agency The Collaborators is a smaller business, with 15 full-time employees. It allows flexible working but hasn’t codified the hours.

“We just made sure that everyone has the working hours they want. Some people work more in the evenings when they’re at home,” said director Jayne Noblet. 

“I don’t work between 12:30pm and 2:30pm. I’m doing that so other people feel they have the permission. They know they’re trusted.”

Being creative when you’re working remotely

Staff working on creative projects need to develop ideas together. That’s more difficult when you’re not in the office.

“We haven’t cracked the creativity part,” said Jayne. “You can’t go to museums or galleries or do anything creative outside of your home. How do you do that?”

LoveCrafts has faced the same challenges. Rachael said they’ve booked speakers that range from a magician to a happiness expert. They also do “craftanoons” where staff work on craft projects together online.

Changing the structure of meetings

Jayne Noblet
Jayne Noblet encourages staff to talk about “absolute rubbish” for the first ten minutes of meetings

Meetings need to be rethought to work well online or be safe in person. LoveCrafts made its company-wide “Work In Progress” meeting much more informal, so everyone is aware of what’s going on and people can share ideas and what they’re up to.

The Collaborators, meanwhile, has a company-wide meeting at 9:30am every day.

“For the first ten minutes, we talk about absolute rubbish. Netflix, whatever. We make sure we ask how each other are,” Jayne emphasised.

The point is to check in with people and provide the space for bonding that remote working makes difficult.

The Collaborators also stops working at 3pm on Thursdays to play games online together.

Office management during the second lockdown

Remote working has become the norm for crowdfunding platform Crowdcube. Around 90 per cent of its employees are currently working from home, although its Exeter and Barcelona offices are open for people to use.

“Some people have continued to go into the office because they recognise that they can work more productively or they need that variety. From a mental health and wellbeing perspective, having the change of scenery is helpful,” co-founder Luke Lang said.

While most employees are comfortable working from home and have settled into routines, Luke explained that it’s still important to check in and make sure the company’s offering the right support.

Crowdcube ran a survey after the first lockdown to find out how people felt about returning to work. The survey results fed into policies and plans. 

Luke recently sent out another survey about home workspaces when he realised people might be working from home for another six months.

“We might be in lockdown for a long period of time – it will likely be spring before everything opens up again. So we’ve sought ways to support the homeworking team better, like providing better tables or monitors. We’re in the process of arranging all that.”

The Collaborators has two separate offices next to each other. That’s given them the space to allow people to come in when they need to. It runs a rota to ensure numbers are kept at a safe level, note when people arrive and take temperatures.

Restarting existing systems and processes

Crowdcube co-founder Luke Lang
Crowdcube co-founder Luke Lang is setting staff targets again to provide the team with structure

Like many businesses, Crowdcube found it hard to plan in quarterly cycles when so much was changing. The company paused objectives and key results and annual reviews, which had been scheduled to kick off at the start of the crisis.

Now Luke believes it’s time to start processes up again and get the building blocks in place for the future.

“We had good reasons for pausing things because people were focusing on the challenges at hand. But now it’s time to restart those programmes and systems – the team needs it and has missed that structure. 

“Even though we’re in another lockdown, it feels like we’ve got through the worst of it. We were on war footing, but now we’re trying to get things back to normal.”

Providing mental health support during winter

Employee mental health is something Luke’s particularly focused on at the moment. He knows winter will be difficult because staff can’t get out and exercise in the same way. 

“People can be affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder anyway, let alone if they’re confined to their homes more than they would like. We’re encouraging people to exercise during their working hours and take advantage of our flexible working policy,” he said.

Crowdcube has a training and development budget of £1,000 per employee, with a percentage for professional development and for personal. Recently, the company increased the percentage of the wellness budget.

Luke has encouraged staff to think about apps or tools that will help with mindfulness, sleep and relaxation, as well as exercise classes they could take remotely. Yoga is popular, as are meditation apps Headspace and Calm.

He advises other business leaders to keep reminding people about the support available.

“We’ve got some mental health first aiders, which was something we were doing before lockdown and continued over the summer. People can get mental health support and a free wellbeing app through their company healthcare too. We’ve made a point about reminding people of stuff that already existed,” he said.

Using training to engage workers

Demand for LoveCrafts’ products increased this year because people had more time on their hands. In spite of the demand, they prioritised training to boost engagement.

The Collaborators took a similar approach, adding a training budget and making LinkedIn’s resources available

According to government guidance, workers on furlough are allowed to complete training. It’s a great way to keep people motivated and engaged while they’re not working.

Thinking about the long-term impact on wellbeing

The changes to workplaces focus on employee safety, wellbeing and engagement. One of business leaders’ biggest challenges is to find ways to bond, be creative and look after each other while working remotely.

“Productivity is easy to track and monitor and it’s been incredible for us, but we’ve had to work hard on making sure we don’t lose the heart of what we are and that’s the love of each other,” said Rachael.

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