We may not have realized it at the time but the summer months were a break from COVID-19. After severe restrictions and lockdowns in the northern hemisphere’s Spring, regulations eased in June, July, and August, relative to the months before. Politicians announced return-to-work strategies, presenting strict rules for companies to enforce in their buildings. Desperate to resume their normal operating capacity, many employers invested heavily in social distancing design, materials, signage, and training. However, before we felt a true end to the first wave of COVID-19 cases, a second wave has emerged that renders return-to-work strategies and investments obsolete, with no certainty that they will apply to post-second wave policies.
In September and October, as temperatures dropped and regions entered their typical flu season, COVID-19 cases rose like a slow wave that descended from north to south across Europe. While in the US, a distinct lack of strong and consistent regulation has lead to a hotchpotch of outbreaks across the country. For most of those that did return-to-work, the rising cases now mean a return-to-remote work, leaving social distancing and safety investments serving empty buildings for the foreseeable future. When workers return again, the science may have changed and a new range of rules and guidance will force a fresh wave of safety investment, thereby restarting a cycle that may yet have a few more rotations before we get to grips with this crisis.
“Clients such as Gymshark and other large companies like Yahoo, IBM, and Deloitte have realized their employees are more productive in the office, and that they need their workspace to create a strong company culture,” David Bishop, design director at office design business, Oktra, told Wired. “But many of the businesses that encouraged staff to come back to the office have been left holding big invoices while their buildings stand empty with no idea when their workforces can return.”
A range of new in-building health measures, such as contactless entry systems, body temperature sensors, anti-microbial paint, desk dividers, and signage have been introduced to minimize the spread of infection and ensure staff feel comfortable. Implementing such “safety infrastructure” has come at a substantial cost according to Liviu Tudor, president of the European Property Federation and chairman of Genesis, which owns a €500 million office portfolio in Romania whose tenants include Siemens, Société Générale, and Accenture. They estimate that for buildings that cost €20 million to build, landlords could expect to pay €400,000 to implement the full range of suggested measures.
“For us, the total cost is similar to going green: 1 to 2 percent of the total initial investment. But it’s about making the workplace trustable. My feeling is landlords will do that,” Tudor said while presenting a 100-point virus-health standard for commercial buildings. “We are speaking to a number of other landlords in Europe and the US about adopting the standard, but the standard would not make offices into hospitals”.
The reality is that no amount of health and safety measures will keep workers at the office in the face of rising cases in that city or region. Severe outbreaks leave governments will little option but to enforce remote work for all those that can, thereby reducing the use of public transport and easing the over-crowding of business districts that bring otherwise disconnected people together. Office-based companies should be thankful they have remote work to fall back on, however, the situation their commercial counterparts in retail and hospitality face is far more complex and potentially catastrophic to business continuity.
The July regulation for restaurants in the UK, for example, places all the responsibility of social distancing directly on the shoulders of the businesses themselves. Fines enforced on restaurants when customers break social distancing rules put those businesses in a very difficult position, forcing them to strictly police their staff and act as bouncers if customers show up without masks, or risk fines and potential closure, according to James Chiavarini, the owner of family-run Italian restaurant Il Portico in south-west London.
“It puts me in a position of being a doctor, a judge, and a policeman,” Chiavarini told Wired. “God forbid somebody comes into the restaurant, they’re eating at the table and someone else is there not wearing a mask for medical reasons. They test positive for Covid-19 a week later, which results in the death of their grandmother. They then submit a claim to me for corporate manslaughter, because I let somebody in my restaurant who wasn’t wearing a mask. Would my insurance company uphold that claim? You see how quickly this can spiral?”
Whether in the office, retail outlets, hotels, or restaurants, the regulations being applied by governments hurt smaller businesses much more than larger ones, but all face a complex and dynamic legal minefield. Significant investments made by responsible companies to return-to-work safely may now seem like a big waste of money as regions across Europe and North America continue to report the largest rise in cases since the pandemic began.
The second wave of cases and the "return-to-remote" now looks likely to extend through the end of the year and businesses will be hoping the investments they made will prove useful for the unknown problems and regulatory responses that 2021 threatens to present.