How do offices stay relevant after the pandemic?

Picture of a t with a blue dot next to it, in front of a purple background.

One news story from the pandemic that refuses to go away is the idea that 'the office', as a concept, is a relic of the past that must be left behind.

Many workers have discovered that, broadly speaking, they can do their job at home to an acceptable standard, with the elimination of a costly and time-consuming commute the icing on the cake. A Bupa Health Clinics survey found that 27% of workers were nervous about the possibility of losing their newfound work/life balance by returning to the office – with some workers even giving up the commute and relocating to the coast.

So if you’re a business with lots of office space – or your business provides office space for others – how do you make your offices worth the commute?

“Offices need to be more than just ‘a desk’. I have one of those at home”, says office worker Lee, who we met while surveying people at MediaCityUK in Salford, a short drive from Together’s Manchester HQ.  “I’m currently in the office one day a week, but I wish it were more. I crave the camaraderie and, frankly, the meeting space. I have screen fatigue”, he added.

And we think that Lee has hit the nail on the head: in our experience, the office facilitates work – especially collaboration – in a way that working from home can’t, counteracting the isolation of being at home, fostering a sense togetherness, and providing our colleagues with a space to share ideas and learn from one another. But if, as we suspect, this is the case for many businesses, why aren’t some workers clamouring to get back to the office?

The reason – and solution – may lie in office design. “Cramped, too-full offices are a recipe for anxiety after the last year, so there are solutions if you’re out of space and relocating isn’t an option. But on the other hand, open, stark, blank spaces are cold and unwelcoming”, says Catherine Corkish, interior designer at The Looking Glass.


Interior designer Catherine Corkish.

“To encourage workers to give up working from home, you might want to create spaces that feel like home. Chunking up your space into ‘rooms’ is one way to achieve that.”

This trick was neatly demonstrated in a 2021 episode of BBC One’s Interior Design Masters with Alan Carr. Teams of budding interior designers transformed open-plan offices, each team tasked with creating three zones: ‘work’, ‘meeting’, and ‘breakout’ – essentially, a kitchen-meets-picnic space – on a tight budget of £9,000.


“In bigger offices, you might want to introduce other zones or spaces: ‘one-to-one’ meeting spaces, isolated ‘solo’ pods when you need to concentrate on a task, even a ‘fun’ area. And you could create more than one kind of meeting space, too – one that’s more formal, one that’s more creative, one with a different layout for presenting in”, Catherine adds.

“It’s not just about zoning, but how you’ve laid out furniture in those zones too. Of course, in every office there’ll be desks – but can we arrange them in a way that fosters conversation? Could we have people in clusters facing each other, rather than rows? Could we remove desk dividers?

“And if your business is moving to a hybrid model and you don’t need so many desks as before, remove some. Replace them with hangout spaces where teams can meet and bond. Or just leave the area empty – space is the ultimate luxury.”

Some workers will understandably be feeling anxious around returning to the office after an extended period away. One answer, according to co-working space provider WeWork, could be ‘biophilic design’: incorporating plants, woods and other natural materials, which can help in mental recovery and stress-relief. Not only that, but they can also help to ‘replenish’ our capacity to pay attention – therefore making us more productive. And the best bit? They don’t even need to be real; indoor plants don’t actually improve air quality, but do create the perception of this – meaning there’s no harm in having fakes.

An example of 'biophilic' design - Image: Pexels/Andrea Davis

This is all well and good – but how can you take apply these lessons when your business is in providing office space to other businesses?

The importance of staging is well-known in property circles. The general consensus is that empty properties take longer to sell and attract a lower price, with a lack of furniture making empty rooms tricking the eye into making them appear smaller.

“We’ve all heard of show homes – I design a lot of them myself – so how about ‘show offices’?”, asks Catherine. “Get a designer in and show your customers what their office could look like; get them inspired by staging an office. You don’t need loads of expensive computers and tech – in fact, I’d avoid screens altogether after the last year!”

Sage advice! If you’re thinking of investing in a new office for your business, read more about our commercial property mortgages. Or if you own an office that’s destiny lies away from the world of work, in our next blog we’re looking at converting those spaces to residential units– and whether we’ll ever romanticise old offices the same way we do Victorian mills, warehouses and dock buildings.