What will coronavirus mean for the charity office?

With Covid-19 forcing people to work at home for months on end, how are charities preparing for the (eventual) return to their former workspaces? Andy Ricketts reports

For many people it will seem like years since they last jumped into the car, squeezed into a busy train carriage or wheeled out their bike to make the journey into the office. 

And it seems there’s little doubt the events of the past few months, which have led to a huge proportion of people working from home for weeks on end, will change the way that businesses and charities operate forever. 

Even if the end of the pandemic appears anything but near, many charities are considering what life might look like for their staff as life begins to return to some semblance of normality. 

So how will the experiences of the lockdown period affect how charity workspaces will be used in the years ahead, and what considerations will charities have to make as they move towards reopening their offices and welcoming their staff back?

“Critical conditions”

Sarah Farquhar, director of organisational development at the homelessness charity Crisis, says the organisation does not expect to return to a building-based existence for the foreseeable future. 

But she says risk assessments for staff and office space are an important part of any return-to-work strategy. The charity, which has about 680 staff, has asked employees to fill in questionnaires to understand their personal situations and feelings about a possible return to work. 

Crisis has also developed a “critical conditions list”, which includes the measures that must be in place before people can return to work. This includes the office having a sufficient stock of personal protective equipment, making sure a heightened office cleaning regime is in place and that the public transport system is fit for staff to safely use. Farquhar says these critical conditions will be assessed on a weekly basis using a traffic-light system, with employees told not to come into the building if any of the signals are red. 

The charity also anticipates implementing a desk-booking system, with a maximum occupancy level of 30 per cent. 

“We will ensure that when people do come back into the building, if they need to, we have some practical things in place,” she says. “First, that we are enabling people to get there: for example, paying for Ubers, more bike racks, allowing people to work more flexibly in terms of the time of day they travel. 

“When they get to the building, we will ensure routes are marked out, there’s a maximum 30 per cent occupancy level, that PPE is provided and so on.”

Even if the charity allowed the use only of every other desk, there would be additional questions, Farquhar explains, “around the use of communal areas, loos, kitchens – you have to make sure that you do not have too many people in at a time”.

Plan ahead 

Susan Cordingley, deputy chief executive at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, says the umbrella body has made no decision to open up its north London headquarters, which has been closed since mid-March, but planning is under way for when it does. 

The charity’s facilities manager has been leading a project to work through a risk assessment based on the government’s checklist. Important issues will include hygiene, ensuring there are good hand-washing facilities, a supply of hand sanitiser and a more rigorous cleaning regime.

The NCVO will have to drop its existing hot-desk policy, Cordingley explains, and – as Crisis will do – introduce limits on the number of people who are in the office at any one time. The organisation is also anticipating having to install screens in its reception area and have PPE available for staff working in that area. 

“Obviously, once you’ve got all that in place you’ve got to remind staff about those things all the time,” Cordingley notes, adding that the charity will also need to put a system in place so it can respond correctly if someone does fall ill with coronavirus. 

Louise Youngman, executive director of people at the disability equality charity Scope, says the charity is exploring how to safely reintegrate staff back into its office space when it does reopen. 

The charity is considering elements including staggered starts and lunch breaks for colleagues that would reduce the strain on communal areas such as kitchens and eating spaces. 

It is also looking at its hot-desking policy and planning to have mandatory empty desks. 

Youngman says the charity has been taking its lead from the advice coming from the government. “As we emerge from lockdown our guiding principle will be employee, volunteer and customer wellbeing,” she says. 

“We’re phasing the opening of our shops, and testing and learning as we go. Our offices will follow a similar pattern, but we don’t expect to open them until the autumn.”

New horizons

A question that some charities will be considering is whether they even need a central office at all. Action on Hearing Loss has already taken the radical step of declaring that it will relinquish its London headquarters when its lease expires in September. 

The charity has said that working through the coronavirus outbreak had proved to the organisation that flexible working was viable, and concluded that now was not the right time to commit to a new London workspace. 

Farquhar believes the experiences of the pandemic will drive some charities to move away from having central headquarters in the long-term. She says Crisis has been going through a period of growth and has been considering whether it should scale back plans to acquire more office space. 

However, she adds that a central office space can still be valuable when teams want to do things such as strategic planning: “Simply doing a payment run or processing recruitment doesn’t require you to be in the office, but the creative stuff around how we work more effectively and so on, that’s what we’ll be using the office for.” 

Although Cordingley believes things will change in a post-Covid world, she does not think that organisations will generally move away from having central offices. “There’s been a lot of debate about whether anybody will ever go back to work in an office in central London again,” she says. 

“I don’t think we’ll get to that because we are social animals and people will want to come together at times. The virtual stuff is great, but it’s built on relationships that we’ve developed over many months and years.”

She predicts that once the environment is a lower-risk one people will want to go back into offices and will want to see colleagues. But she adds that it’s likely more people will be working remotely than before the pandemic began. 

“Maybe what will increase is the use of hub-type office space, or people renting meeting rooms to come together once a month or something,” she says. “For some charities that might be a much more cost-effective way for them to run their organisations: hiring out space when they need to work together and the rest being done remotely.”

Farquhar says that, after any change in government policy, Crisis has decided to have a period of reflection and observation before implementing any changes to its operations. 

“We’ve said that, after any government announcement, we won’t enact policy changes until three weeks after it’s happened to see how that plays out.

“We wouldn’t want to put people in situations where they felt they were guinea pigs: to create some psychological safety, we are not going to react quickly. We are operating effectively, we are achieving our mission and there’s no need to rush.”

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