Creating Safe Spaces And Navigating The New Normal: A Q&A With Jonathan Weinbrenn, MD Of BE.Spoke

In a Q&A for Allwork.Space, BE.Spoke’s Jonathan Weinnbrenn discusses the immediate and future impact of COVID-19 on the workplace.
  • In a Q&A for Allwork.Space, BE.Spoke’s Jonathan Weinnbrenn discusses the immediate and future impact of COVID-19 on the workplace.
  • Even in this bleak period in our history, innovation is taking place and the health crisis is bringing workers’ needs into sharp focus.
  • In the immediate term, Weinbrenn explains BE.Spoke’s strategies to enable their clients and staff a safe return to work.

The arrival of COVID-19 and its impact on our way of life, such as remote work and physical distancing, is accelerating changes that in many cases were already happening.

But why did it take a pandemic to switch emerging trends to reality? What will CEOs do with the new-found realisation that remote work actually works? And what’s the future of the flexible space sector?

In a Q&A for Allwork.Space, Jonathan Weinbrenn, Managing Director of BE.Spoke, penned his insights in response to these questions and provided in-depth guidance on how BE is re-imagining its workspace environments to enable thousands of UK business owners and team members to return to work, safely.

For clarity, the Q&A took place week commencing 4th May 2020.

Allwork.Space: Back in February, we recorded a podcast in which you mentioned how the Coronavirus is triggering an unplanned experiment in remote working. A lot of teams are now realising that they can collaborate remotely and sustain productivity, perhaps better than they thought. What do you think CEOs will do with this new information?

Jonathan Weinbrenn: Yep, but what I didn’t forecast was the sheer scale of the pandemic and its effects on us all. Firstly, I’d like to extend my condolences to any of your readers who have lost loved ones, friends or colleagues and wish anyone who is ill, a speedy recovery! 

Pre the emergence of COVID-19, I was already tracking 100 per cent remote only businesses, such as Automattic and Zapier, as I was interested in their experiences, the impact on productivity, employee engagement and how they create and maintain their company cultures. 

On a broader level, for many years now, an increasing amount of companies with physical space have also provided some of their employees with the tools and freedom to work remotely as part of their contracts, or on an ad hoc basis. Pre the lockdown here in the UK, around 56 per cent of larger companies had 10 per cent or fewer staff working from home. 

According to a report issued this week (WC 4th May 2020), by Willis Towers Watson surveying 996 leading UK employers, 75 per cent of their workforce are now working remotely. In terms of productivity, 22 per cent of companies polled said there had been “no or a positive” impact in recent weeks, whilst 15 per cent acknowledged a “significant fall” with a further 22 per cent reporting a “small, negative” impact. A third of those surveyed were unable to assess any impact changes. 

So, this ‘forced’ adoption has really demonstrated to CEOs, and other key stakeholders, the art of the possible. But it’s how they use this experience that will dictate how the new landscape is shaped. 

Allwork.Space: What are their options in terms of future workplace strategies?

Over the past weeks, we’ve all been subject to sensationalist headlines and bold proclamations by global CEOs. But the truth is none of us really know the outcome and long-term impacts that COVID-19 will deliver. 

What is blatantly clear now, is that cash is king as is cutting costs. A PwC survey this week found that a quarter of CFOs were already thinking of cutting back on real estate, while the Site selectors Guild, whose members help companies locate new buildings, have stated that fifty per cent of all office searches across the US have now been put on hold. 

There are CEOs proclaiming that their teams working from home (WFH) are all reporting that this has been an unmitigated success (contradicting the Willis stats) – but if they feel this bold on the topic now, why did it take government enforced lockdowns for them to recognise this? There are undeniably success stories and many individuals benefit from avoiding hideous commutes, whilst reducing their carbon footprint, increasing their output and who don’t need to ‘physically’ be in a workspace. 

This new mantra has been encapsulated by the CEO of Barclays, Jes Staley who stated last week that “the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past”. This is music to my ears Mr Staley, and I’m sure equally well received by many of the seven thousand. His is not a lone voice; this sentiment is shared with a huge array of organisations including Morgan Stanley, Infosys, UBS, S4 Capital and Capita, to name a few. 

Most striking is their commitment to reduce their overall property footprint and cost base and allow more of their employees to work remotely. To put this in some sort of perspective just as an example, S4 capital currently spends circa £35 million every year on property costs. 

And here lies the opportunity. In this bleak period in our history, I find myself desperately looking for glimmers of light or snippets of innovation, and in relation to re-imagining the workplace and focusing on the needs of our workforces, oddly COVID might just provide this relief. 

Now more than ever CEOs can harness this experiment to truly engage with their counterparts across HR, IT, finance, operations and real estate and of course their ultimate client – their staff – to resize and repurpose their real estate and re-engage with their workforce to create multi layered solutions that will drive productivity gains, improve employee engagement and wellbeing, lift innovation, increase talent retention and recruitment and dare I say it, increase profit.

Allwork.Space: What impact do you think the current situation will have on coworking and flexible space?

In the short term, the sector is hurting. Very few of us are not experiencing real concern at the moment. Businesses are in a state of flux, revenues are volatile, and people are naturally anxious. 

At BE our main priority is the health and wellbeing of our 300 plus staff and our 500 plus clients accounting for around 11,000 individuals. We have always maintained that we have a huge responsibility for servicing these two ‘customer’ groups. We have an enormous duty of care to protect their health and safety as well as their careers and businesses. This is how we build long term sustainability.  

In the UK we are expecting an announcement for the government this weekend, outlining their vision and plans to relax the lockdown in phases as well as the guidelines that will directly impact the workspace. 

The next few months will be extremely difficult for many of us. A wider debate has already begun on the future of shared spaces, density and the sustainability of the coworking sector. 

Not all of this is purely COVID related either. Before Corona (BC), I started to notice a significant change in the rhetoric in the property press and mainstream media outlets, around our sector. Questions were being asked about the sustainability of our segment, particularly in the event of an economic downturn. Much of this was driven by WeWork’s failed IPO and the fallout around this as well as some other well-known operators across the globe shuttering their doors. 

COVID has now placed a magnifying glass over our industry, in a similar way the market is analysing the retail and the casual dining segments, for example. This in turn is leading to questions around how we are viewed by institutional investors, landlords and asset owners and equally how we structure our models. Most recently WeWork’s move to renegotiate hundreds of its leases is rippling into the commercial mortgage market, “sending the price of bonds backed by [WeWork’s] payments tumbling”. 

However, for the consumer, COVID will only highlight the need for added layers of service provision, not less. Customers will demand more flexibility, more agility, more support. Clients will want to retain their capital for talent, R&D and AI. They won’t want to spend it on stud partitions or buying furniture or paying a landlord reinstatement costs. 

Operational expertise and experience will be key. Risk assessments, increased health and safety audits, new levels of cleaning and sanitisation regimes, a greater engagement on general wellbeing, certifications around air quality – all of these will be critical to our customers. And operators who can seamlessly blend these elements with our hospitality, IT and core service delivery provision will capture significant market share. 


Suggested Reading: What Comes Next, and What’s the Future of Flexible Space?


So, we need to become trusted partners to our customers, allowing them to transfer risk and capital to us whilst securing, cost certainty, flexibility and assurances around service delivery. Then we will come out of this stronger.

Allwork.Space: There is a theory that larger companies will want to distribute their teams across more spaces to allow employees to work closer to home, and of course to enable physical distancing. Do you think that’s likely to happen?

In a word yes, as I’ve alluded to earlier. This makes total sense and really just accelerates that the trends in real estate that were occurring BC. 

What I don’t believe though is that there is a binary answer to the questions particularly corporate real estate (CRE) is asking itself? A distributed workforce requires a range of solutions, not an either or. So, it shouldn’t be a case of WFH or being in the office. 

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We need to be looking at creative solutions that best meets the needs of the individual and the businesses they work with. These would also include working from near home (WFNH), flex office hubs (the hub and spoke approach, incorporating more local offices, aligned to transport networks and closer to suburban areas), use of municipal spaces and third-party spaces such as a serviced and managed sites.

In order for this transition to be successful, further infrastructure and amenity creation is required. For example better transport networks, more cycling and running networks (backed by government initiatives and extra funding), integrated childcare into workspaces and deeper thought and investment in placemaking.

We must also continue to build on the progress made BC on issues of sustainability, diversity, mental health and gender inequality in the workplace – Corona should act as an accelerant for these initiatives, not as a dampener, which is a risk.

Overall though, this is promising news for our sector as the incumbent dominant model – the conventional lease – is the antithesis of everything I’ve been highlighting. 

I recently read an interesting piece by Simon Johnson of the Incendium Group (part of the Instant Group) where he described the phase we’re entering into as  “… the most exciting catalyst for change in a generation, as it directly addresses – and has already broken – the boundaries that have limited the appetite for change that we experience every day with the clients that we work with.” As a result, coming out of this crisis, CRE will demand “rapid change to more agile workspace” and in my view, it’s our sector who can deliver this!

A distributed workforce, rather than a WFH workforce, certainly doesn’t mean the death of the office, which like rumours of Mark Twain’s death, are greatly exaggerated!

Allwork.Space: What is the BE Group doing to encourage people to return to the workplace over the coming weeks and months?

First and foremost, we will adhere to the government guidelines and look to go beyond the standards required. We’re getting closer to a decision on timings and what a gradual return may look like. 

As the lockdown came into effect over 7 weeks ago, we immediately formed a steering committee which has been meeting every day, virtually, to plan our safe return and ensure that we are prepared for both our staff and clients. This has been an enormous, collaborative effort across all our departments as the plans are complex and require a greater level of scrutiny and investment. 

Many years ago, BE took a strategic decision to bring our vertical delivery lines in-house, rather than outsourcing them to third parties. Critically these included our facilities management, health and safety, and cleaning businesses. Last year, for example, our team of 126 cleaners clocked over 150,000 hours with continual day and night schedules. 

Exceptional cleaning standards are going to be critical to continued business operations, and we are working with our teams and specialist parties to ensure we can sanitise all surfaces and touchpoints. Together, with new social distancing guidelines we believe businesses can return to their workspaces successfully. 

Our immediate plans include the deployment of thermal screening devices to our receptions, to provide deep cleaning and fogging across our offices (a similar system used by the NHS and deployed by Transport for London on our tube network), sneeze screens for reception areas and perspex desk screen dividers for workstations, more personal protective equipment (PPE) for our cleaners, customers and staff and more use of contactless systems throughout our portfolio. 

It’s critical that all of these changes, enhanced cleaning schedules and any updates are relayed clearly and regularly to our staff and customers as the space they are returning to, as well as the changes around behavioural expectations, are very different to how they last left them. 

Allwork.Space: How will you help people to maintain physical distancing in your spaces?

To aid clients and team members with social distancing, we will be marking two metres lines on the floor behind key areas in our workspaces that typically have the highest footfall. These include areas such as receptions, coffee and break out areas, lift lobbies and kitchen and tea points. In smaller kitchens, we are recommending a one-in-one-out approach. In food preparations areas, we have sourced single use, biodegradable solutions to limit shared use items, such as crockery, cutlery, glasses and cups. 

We are also instigating new traffic flow systems, recommending people walk on the left-hand side of corridors, stairwells and rotate around break-out areas in clockwise fashion. 

A maximum amount of people in each lift carriage will be specified at each lift lobby to allow users to adhere to social distancing, although we also recommend using the stairs where possible. 

These changes are being supported with a significant investment in new, clear signage and wayfinding designed to help our customers navigate this new environment and forms part of our clear messaging strategy. 

We have made our specialist (in-house) CAD and design teams available to help clients with space planning in their individual offices to facilitate social distancing. 

As a measure under review, we are temporality keeping our gyms and events spaces closed until further notice. 

Allwork.Space: In terms of meetings and events, do you plan to make any changes to your meeting spaces in the short or long term? For instance, do you expect to see more video calls taking place – and how will you prepare for that?

Our community programme, across all our brands, is being reconfigured to work in these unprecedented circumstances, with the continuing aim of benefiting our clients to develop their networks and knowledge. Throughout the lockdown period we have continued to provide a vibrant ‘virtual’ program with a greater focus on health and well-being to help out customers and staff through this challenging period. 

Our meeting spaces are being reconfigured and adjusted to provide more space to allow for social distancing underpinned with even higher hygiene regimes and sanitization products. 

When we entered the lockdown phase, we offered all our clients free use of our call twinning service so that they could take their handsets home with them and use them as if they were still in the office, seamless end to end remote connectivity and access to our video conferencing (VC) systems and we envisage greater use of VC even when customers are physically back in our spaces. 

In spite of the of the huge investments we have made over the years in our IT platform and the award-winning service that brings, I’m still of the firm belief that there is a real need for face to face collaboration and interactions in a physical space, for specific ‘human’ work whether it be with colleagues, clients, partners or other stakeholders and it’s been refreshing to see a massive uplift in meeting room booking enquiries, over the last few weeks, in anticipation or the return to the office. 

Allwork.Space: Looking ahead 1-2 years from now, how do you think the health crisis will impact the way we work? What will be our ‘new normal’?

I still think it’s too early to assess the long-term outcomes of the pandemic.

Certain trends that were impacting the market BC, seem to show signs of only accelerating after Corona and for many, this is actually positive news. The flexible workspace sector had already, to a large extent, been driving the change in providing customer centric solutions, underpinned by hospitality, technology, data and design. 

Many of us in the sector had been delivering solutions hinged around wellness, well-being, mental health and sustainability. We have, for many years, been banging the drum about providing employees with choice, with empowerment; whilst providing businesses with flexibility and the ability to transfer capital and risk, whilst gaining cost certainty. Attracting and retaining talent will become more challenging for employers, so real estate solutions provided by operators, hinged on hospitality, will act as an extension of the employer proposition – gaining prominence alongside remuneration and other key employee benefits, such as healthcare. In some cases healthcare will be part of the workspace proposition, as will childcare, and wellbeing. 

These features will be demanded, expected as a prerequisite but the standards, health and safety and risk assessment measures that underpin the overall delivery, will equally be scrutinised as being fundamental to the offering. 

We need to be confident about what makes us unique from the incumbent models, and not shy away from explaining the costs of providing these services and the expertise and experience that sits within the teams we employ to deliver them. 

As a sector, let us lead the market by providing transparency to our prospects, and service level agreements to our clients, providing solid assurances and comfort. 

Those of us who can tangibly demonstrate our capabilities in these areas and provide value-add services and safe, secure environments will flourish. 

One thing that is for certain, is that a distributed workforce is an inevitability, so the opportunity to capture greater market share from an existing model so inept in predicting their customer’s needs, let alone understanding who their customer even is, is the ultimate prize. 

Keep safe, keep well!

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