These companies blew millions on back to work plans. And for what?

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On September 22, after almost a month of verbally frogmarching people back into the workplace, prime minister Boris Johnson abruptly sent office workers home again. August’s message of ‘go back to work or risk losing your job’ had nudged organisations across the country to spend millions to transform their offices into Covid-secure spaces.
“Clients such as Gymshark and other large companies like Yahoo, IBM and Deloitte have realised their employees are more productive in the office, and that they need their workspace to create a strong company culture,” says David Bishop, design director at office design business, Oktra, who also works with the likes of Network Rail, Aviva and Moonpig. But many of the businesses that encouraged staff to come back to the office have been left holding big invoices while their buildings stand empty with no idea when their workforces can return.

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Companies could have spent millions of pounds of extra costs to cover these renovations, Liviu Tudor, president of the European Property Federation and chairman of Genesis Property told the Financial Times . Genesis estimates that for a building which cost €20 million to build, landlords could expect to pay €400,000 to implement the full range of measures.
It’s been “an almighty waste of time and money”, says Angela Love, director at Active Workplace Solutions, which has been helping clients reimagine their workplaces in light of Covid-19. “We’ve spent hours and hours on-site with people looking at space planning and two-metre distancing, trying to remodel their space to be able to accommodate the numbers,” she says. “Businesses have been working their socks off and spending a lot of money in really tough financial times. One client has so far spent £40,000 on space planning.”
This effort wasn’t just about box-ticking. To get people coming back into the workplace, they had to feel safe. This means a lot of businesses went above and beyond with their investments. “I had one client [who told me] they’d spent £25,000 just on signage. That’s to put one-way systems in place and ensure that people keep their distance, wear a face covering and use the sanitisers,” Love says.
Environmental consultancy SaveMoneyCutCarbon, which featured in government advertisements to encourage people back to work, installed everything from touchless light switches and taps to temperature sensors and specially designed Propelair toilets that eliminate airborne germs.

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The company’s CEO, Mark Salt, says it was a considerable investment for a relatively young company that is doubling its workforce every year. “Last year we were probably at around £7 million or £8 million turnover, so aren’t really very profitable at the moment because we’re growing very rapidly. We’ve easily spent north of £10,000, which in proportion to our turnover – particularly as Covid-19 has hurt us by delaying our projects – is quite a material investment.”
Brendan Kilpatrick, senior partner of architectural and design firm PRP, says he has spent double that amount on his three studios across the UK, racking up a bill of £20,000. “We have been building up a head of steam,” he says. “We strongly believe in the efficient working of our staff whilst maintaining their mental wellbeing within a creative, supportive office culture. We have had no issues in almost two months. So we are in disbelief about the PM’s volt-face.”
As offices stand empty once more, some companies are trying to salvage what they can of their plans to make the second instalment of work from home more bearable.“We’re taking advantage of the gains we have made, leveraging our IT to enable remote-working,” says Kilpatrick, who introduced Microsoft Teams to help with collaboration on projects and strengthen employee relationships across studios. This is proving invaluable for remote-working too.
He sees the investment in office updates as useful for the long-term. Should we still find ourselves without a vaccine in six months, Covid-secured spaces will be key in returning to work – for the second time. “This was a very good investment and we would do it again,” Kilpatrick says.

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Regardless of the money that’s been ploughed into shared workspaces by those intent on returning to them, the government’s latest instructions solidified the need for businesses to cough up more money to help their employees, says David D’Souza of UK professional human resources body CIPD.
“In some cases, organisations had got to a place where people could make do with their remote surroundings to work in for a short time. But six months or an indefinite period of time is a very different proposition.”
Sure, we can perch with a laptop on the dining table for a day or two a week for a couple of months. But, realistically, if businesses want their people happy and productive, that’s not a solution that’s viable all the way through until next spring, let alone beyond. Rather than an abrupt and short-term change to working practices, employers have to accept that remote working is a permanent change.
Research from the CIPD estimates that the proportion of people continuing to work from home regularly after the pandemic will increase from 18 per cent to 37 per cent, while the number of those who work solely from home will jump from nine per cent to 22 per cent.
Some employers have already relinquished the focus on the communal office workspace, instead forking out money to make sure that all their staff are set up to work remotely.
“We’ve already been having enquiries from businesses who want to make sure people have all their working from home kits,” Love says. “One of our US clients – a large music blue-chip client that is based in the UK – gave all their people $900 to equip them all with a proper ergonomic chair and desk. Because they’re thinking longer-term about all the injuries that we’ll be experiencing from sitting all day at the kitchen table.”
But the physical practicalities are only a fraction of what’s really important in helping staff to have a positive, productive experience of home working.
“The challenges of working from home have been primarily around wellbeing and community,” says D’Souza. “So, people are feeling an increased level of social isolation, an increased difficulty in separating work and personal lives.”
Around 50 per cent of current home workers are already claiming that their social connections have worsened, while 29 per cent of employees say that the use of portable devices blurs boundaries between work and home life.
So perhaps the most significant way employers can invest in their staff right and protect their future isn’t with perspex screens, sanitiser or even back-supporting chairs. It’s about investing in their own community and wellbeing support.
PRP, for instance, has held a number of virtual events for its people, such as free personal training sessions and pub quizzes.OVO Energy has decided to pay people to not work part of the day, and instead employees can call a friend, go for a run, or do something that makes them feel healthier and happier. “The point is that we can all unplug at the same time and take the pressure off,” a spokesperson says.Businesses don’t need to just accept that remote working is the future; they need to be proactive in facilitating it. And it won’t come cheap.
“It shouldn’t be underestimated how much time, effort, passion and craft needs to go into supporting employees to make them feel safe in what is a very dangerous time to be alive,” says D’Souza.
Scrimping here will leave employees burnt-out and see poor wellbeing mushroom among workforces – issues that are far more challenging to cure than prevent.
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