Chris Read: Post-pandemic workplaces must stimulate creativity as well as safe collaboration

Chris Read is not relishing the prospect of the return to mandatory home-working but needs must. Here he explores what 'new' workplaces might look like next year and hopes they will be a place of creative collaboration

Nothing beats the sound of live music. It can be loud or pensive. It can reverberate to the bones or relax the soul. Being live with music is to be part of something bigger, a happening.

As we drifted through the spring and summer there have been no music festivals, no Glastonbury, no Proms as we used to know it.

Instead, we had a fittingly socially distanced Rule Britannia and Jerusalem’s green and pleasant land was given a Covid-19 contemporary makeover, dedicated to the Windrush generation.

Since June, the Covid-19 alert level fell from 4 to 3. This alert level means that Covid-19 was in general circulation and that there was in response to our good performance in bringing the R rate down. Our reward was a gradual relaxing of restrictions and social distancing measures.  Although there were no concerts or musical gatherings, we lost no time in taking advantage of this relaxing of the rules.

Taking up the baton, I encouraged my colleagues to venture back into the office to have management and strategy meetings, live, in the flesh. Invariably with an agenda to guide. However, more often than not, the face to face stimulated spontaneity as discussions moved off-piste into areas improvised but of equal value and often much more fun.

What a positive difference physical person to person meetings have had in content, creativity, and output. Gone were the dull, tiresome virtual meetings where the agenda beats out a monotonous rhythm of transactional discussions devoid of warmth, betraying an absence of soul.  Meeting in person provides an explosion of senses, the nuances of body language, of frowns and shuffling in the seat. So much more is read from physical presence than understood from virtual existence.

Down beat

As the weather turns autumnal, the country has been shunted back on to Covid-19 alert level 4. The fragility of dealing with an illness without a cure has been laid bare. Faint hope then that the warm summer months and high pollen count would deal an end to Covid-19 – the converse proved to be true. 

In level 4 the disease is in general circulation. Transmission is high and rising exponentially. The government warns that social distancing will be more vigorously enforced. Working from the office is to be discouraged, except where it disadvantages the business.

With this caveat, does it mean that so long as we keep adequate social distancing we can continue to meet in person, as a group, as a management bubble? I do hope so. The return to Covid-19 lockdown Zoom and Teams communications is such a disappointing prospect in the lead up to the dark days of winter.

We can, however, but look forward to 2021 and the prospect of a vaccine, a return to the office, and to a degree of the old normal. Mind you the old normal may never return. Like the Last Night of the Proms, the reminisce for past glory and rose-tinted memories have faded. Progressive, ever more creative, methods to communicate and to work together must be found.

Office layouts and reconfiguration will be on the rise. Workspaces will give way to collaboration spaces, places of ideas. Like a music festival, new workplaces will need to encourage (albeit safe) coming together of people to interact, communicate and create.

Chris Read is group CEO of Dunstan Thomas