Clients seem divided on what do with their office space, but most think the pandemic will permanently change how and where staff work, says Jack Pringle

Since last writing I was elected to the RIBA council, after a gap of 13 years, topping the London region pole. Thank you to any of you RIBA members who voted for me. RIBA is in a bit of a state and there is lots to be done. More of that another time after I’ve got my feet under the table.

Boris Johnson announced the great return to the office on 17 July. Last week I went in for the first time since March. It was an eerie deja vue as I had written a column back in April on how it might be, based on my Shanghai office’s experience of doing the same. But there were two signal differences. First we don’t have the reassuring track and trace app that the Chinese had working back in April (that’s a whole other article about our incompetence) which controlled access to public transport and offices. Secondly, where the return to the office in Shanghai was seen as a celebration with the maximum number of staff attending per shift, in London our office which is set for more than two hundred staff had a bare dozen of lonely souls in it.

I must admit it was very nice to see those who were in the office, if even at a distance and through a mask

There were similarities; my temperature was taken at the office block reception, one-way systems were set throughout the building, the lifts were out of general use and up only / down only staircases were designated. Thank goodness we work on the third floor, not the sixth. In our office there were plenty of sanitizing points, every other desk was blocked off, only two people were allowed in the loos at one time, cleaners roamed the space and the kitchen was full of disposable everything. I’m afraid single use plastic is back with a vengeance, I hope we can turn all those spoons, masks and cups into carpets and tarmac.

I must admit it was very nice to see those who were in the office, if even at a distance and through a mask. Working alone at home is more possible than anyone imagined thanks to technology, but it’s a poor life to lead. Its just nice to meet people and to shoot the breeze. But it was strange, not quite the Marie Celeste but like wandering around a supertanker manned by a skeleton staff crossing a calm sea.

The other abiding thought was – what a waste. Ninety five percent of our staff were busy working at home with all the equipment they need, and here was two hundred empty desks and unused chairs, four hundred blank faced computer screens, empty meeting rooms, a deserted model shop, two print rooms with state of the art machines standing idle.

Some say that this will blow over and as soon as we are all vaccinated, we will return to type. I’m not so sure

Who knows when the real return to the office will happen, it’s clear that the Brits don’t have much of an appetite to do it if they really don’t have to. I think we are going to need a convincing therapy or mass vaccination before it really happens. And then what? Our clients are telling us different things. A minority just want it like it was before, everyone back in the office to work together as a team to drive their great project forward, or is it just to be where their managers can see them? The majority think this marks a permanent change and that most people will work at home half the time and come in for meetings and catch ups. So the office becomes even more like a club. And a further group of clients want that sort of model but instead of working from home, the staff have local satellite offices in the suburbs that they can walk, cycle or e-scooter to, because, nobody really likes working from home and commuting is stupid.

If the office was empty, the City was like a ghost town. My favourite Pret had a couple of people in it and the pavements were all but empty.

Some say that this will blow over and as soon as we are all vaccinated, we will return to type. I’m not so sure. This may have been the first pandemic we have suffered in our lifetimes, but there have been quite a few pan or epidemics recently that didn’t hit us, including SARS, MERS, Ebola and Swine Flu (H1N1). I think we are going to be sensitised to this for quite a while.

September is going to be a testing time. The schools are back, so maybe more people will come back to offices. And maybe the R0 will kick off and we will yoyo in and out of lockdown.

Furlough ends in October and everyone predicts a tsunami of redundancies because the phoney war will be over. These last six months have only been the beginning. It’s going to get really tough before it gets better.

Stay safe.

Jack Pringle is principal and EMEA regional director at Perkins+Will