It seems that the only thing that’s certain about Brexit is uncertainty. The referendum’s 52:48 split marked the beginning of a series of increasingly divided opinions that have affected everything from what sort of Brexit we want to its likely implications. In our recent survey on the impact of Brexit on the workplace, “I don’t know” was among the more frequent answers. So, if you’re responsible for your workplace design, the question remains, what should you be doing?
‘I’ve seen a 30% upswing in workplace consultancy since the referendum,’ says workplace strategist, interior designer and change manager Hannah Nardini. ‘But then companies are holding fire – they’re not implementing anything and that’s making employees nervous.’
The current trend for two- to three-year lease extensions shows that companies are postponing decisions. Emma Morley, founder and creative director of Trifle* – an interior design agency that specialises in workplaces, is seeing the same thing: ‘I don't think we have ever experienced such reluctance to commit to a brief or the direction of a project,’ she says. Because bosses don’t know what the impact of Brexit will be, they are doing nothing, and perhaps even more damagingly, saying nothing. ‘Leaders are not communicating with their teams because they don’t know what’s happening,’ says Nardini. ‘And that’s creating anxiety.’
In her workplace research, she has seen a fall in complaints from UK employees and a rise in ‘presenteeism’ even in companies that encourage working from home and flexible hours. ‘British employees are keeping their heads down and trying to demonstrate their value’ she explains. ‘But that’s because they’re worried about losing their jobs, so they’re starting to look elsewhere – and this is not the time for companies to be losing their best talent.’
In the absence of further clarity on what Brexit might mean, if doing nothing and saying nothing isn’t working, what should leaders be doing instead? ‘Never waste a good crisis,’ advises Morley, ‘Workspace design is seriously evolving right now and the uncertainty around Brexit might just encourage some smart thinking. We always seek positive opportunities, so while we are of course supporting the cautious attitudes of many of our clients at the moment, we are also enjoying more open conversations around what impact a change in the way people work could have. Brexit might provide an opportunity to mix things up a little, which could have a really positive impact after the dust has settled.’
When the future seems uncertain, a flexible approach makes sense. New ideas around smart working were already gaining ground before the referendum, but they now offer one way to future-proof workspaces for whatever Brexit might bring. ‘The bottom line for any business is always going to be financial, so it makes sense to look at using space more efficiently,’ says Nardini. ‘But it’s not just about efficiency – agile working can enable companies to be smarter about how they use space, show their staff they trust them, and save money by reducing footprint rather than headcount.’ Morley agrees: ‘The agility question is a big one right now – and it’s not just being driven by uncertainty. Standard occupancy rates of workspace of just 60%, fears around 'sitting as the new smoking' and worker productivity measurements all show that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to office design isn’t working – now is the time to break some of the habits of the last 100 years.’
But Morley cautions that if it is simply a cost-cutting exercise, it won’t work. ‘A move to agile working needs to be supported with consultation, conversation and training – and should incorporate a multitude of different spaces to work, collaborate, meet and focus,’ she says. ‘We have seen fantastic results, such as increased conversations and collaborative behaviours and improvements in worker health.’
Looking forward towards the ever-changing workplace
The key is to take action, future-proof the workspace for whatever Brexit may bring, communicate that to staff and then concentrate on business as usual. ‘There are other challenges on the horizon from new technologies such as artificial intelligence to the impact of the next generation coming into the workplace,’ says Nardini. ‘It’s important that companies don’t get distracted.’ It might just be that those companies that get fit for Brexit find themselves fitter for whatever else the future brings too.
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