Covid-19 has transformed the role of today’s office with millions of people working successfully from home.

Only a fraction of the UK’s white collar employees have gone back to work, compared to 83 per cent in France.

Being Covid-ready extends far beyond social distancing so BusinessCloud’s executive editor Chris Maguire brought together a panel of techies, property experts, interior design specialists and businesses for a discussion of getting your office ready for a Covid world.

Video conferencing

Manchester-based Everything Tech and has seen a huge surge in demand for video conferencing technology as offices ready themselves for a gradual return to work.

In the last six weeks the Microsoft Gold partner has had more than 35 requests for video conferencing equipment, which can be paid for with government help.

Founder and sales and marketing director Lee Wrall explained: “There’s a grant of up to £5,000 available for businesses to improve technology. They can also use it for HR or accountancy services. From our point of view if you spend a couple of thousand pounds on a conferencing system then you can potentially get that returned to you by the government free of charge.”

He said Covid-19 had changed the business sector’s approach towards video conferencing.

“Historically there was a stigma attached to video conferencing which I think has well and truly gone away,” he said. “People’s opinions of it were that it was complicated to use, its interoperability was poor so different organisations couldn’t speak to each other.

“Microsoft Teams and Zoom have made that go away. Because we’ve been using it a lot for three months there’s going to be a much wider adoption of this technology because people find it acceptable.”

Interact with customers

Clickacall was only launched in November 2019 and allows people to make instant voice or video calls to anybody, just by clicking a link.

The tech start-up only employs five people but already operates in 100 industries.

Co-founder Jordan Worthington said: “We didn’t expect the level of growth that we have had. When Covid happened we had people queuing at the door, from small companies right up to the gigantic ones.

“One of the biggest pain points is customer conversations. The way we positioned ourselves is to help businesses interact with their customers in a frictionless way. What we provide is the video service and a few additional business tools.”

Removing the fear factor

Hyve Dynamics is a sensor skin technology firm which provides armbands that monitor vital abnormalities that can be symptoms for Covid-19.

CEO Cecilia Harvey said: “It resembles a very thin plastic membrane with embedded sensors. The density of the sensors allows for the precision of the data whether it’s a car, an aeroplane or a boat.”

The American-born entrepreneur said: “There’s this fear factor about returning to work or school at the moment. Our armbands are one way to alleviate that fear factor.”

She said the technology has attracted a lot of interest from the healthcare sector especially in relation to remote monitoring.

“Pre-Covid we were getting interest from a health perspective and remote monitoring in general,” she said. “After Covid it exploded in terms of people wanting the sectors to optimise their existing wearable devices but also we were able to develop our own proprietary offering.

“(The armbands) allow for staff and organisations to effectively monitor the data for any abnormalities,” she said. “We’re beyond the prototype stage. We have the armbands ready to go. There’s been a lot of commercial interest.

“Something like this type of technology will be able to restore that confidence that is so lacking right now.”

Hybrid offices

Justin Lawson is an executive director at CBRE Global Workplace Solutions and said Covid-19 had changed the role of offices.

He said: “Right at the moment returning our clients and stakeholders back to work is right at the top of the agenda and how we can support them doing that.

“Property for the first time in a long time is starting to be spoken about in the boardroom more so than it has ever done.

“We’ve had two cases recently in the press. One was Capita who have decided to cast away more than a third of their office spaces in the UK as they think about what their new working strategies are going be.

“The other was the decision by Schroders not to repopulate their massive office in the City of London. That’s causing ripples for property investors in particular who have always relied on those types of assets to bring them the income and the revenue.”

Lawson said CBRE produced a white paper about creating hybrid office space by 2030 but said Covid-19 had accelerated the timeline.

“Each demographic has its own requirement when it comes to the workplace,” he said. “Covid has driven us all to work in a particular way. That doesn’t suit everyone and we’re working with our clients to do some demographic analysis that not only looks at age, it looks at people’s circumstances. We have got to remember that there are personal circumstances that simply don’t accommodate them working from home.”

Look after clients

Homesearch tracks over 28m properties in its database and records every update, from a sale to a new planning application, a change in value to digital connectivity and more.

COO Sam Hunter admitted: “None of us had any experience of working from home. We didn’t know what was going to happen.

“We’re in the fortunate position that our business strengthened through lockdown because we gave our professional clients an avenue to still operate and do what they do best and communicate with their marketplaces through our systems and platforms.”

Getting more out of office space

Interior design agency Jolie Studio was started three years ago to help companies get more out of their workspace.

Co-founder and creative director Franky Rousell said people are talking a lot more about their mental health.

“The reason we started the business was because we knew there was much a massive demand for workspace that gave you a return on your investment,” she said.

“You spend so much time on fitting out your office and changing the environment it actually needs to do something. That change needs to be a psychological or behavioural. We are already starting to see that movement happening.”

She said working from home had hindered some and boosted the productivity of others.

“There’s going to be a level of downsizing for a lot of businesses,” said Rousell. “Condensing their office space makes a lot of sense. Human beings still need human contact. Reforming the office as more of a members’ club or HQ type space is the shift that we’re starting to see.

“Businesses need a shop window, somewhere physical for people to walk into and feel part of something.”

The other speakers took part in the roundtable were: Richard Hagan, managing director, Crystal Doors; Katie Cruickshank, CEO at Best Clean Direct; and Martin Horton, founder of The F Word and Rivington Accounts.