In a post-pandemic era the future of traditional, permanent offices is uncertain. Covid-19 and the UK Government's 'work from home' mandate has caused many businesses, small and big alike, to consider investing in more flexible office arrangements to balance the desire for home working with maintaining a space with more 'buzz' for collaboration, and saving costs at the same time.
Flexible office space can take many forms, whether it be dedicated private office space for an entire team managed by a serviced office provider; co-working space for individuals managed on a membership basis, which might include access to communal areas with hot-desks; or simply taking advantage of a semi-social 'third space' increasingly offered by hotels, pubs, restaurants and cafes.
With short term agreements and the ability to increase or shrink the space, coworking spaces offer quick and convenient flexibility and potentially decreased costs, but employers may also cede control over their workspace to providers - sacrificing the dedicated for the communal. If you are looking at this type of model for your workplace, here are some key points to bear in mind.
Office equipment such as chairs and desks are usually provided by the coworking space provider; but, what happens if an employee with disabilities has specific needs? Under the Equality Act 2010 owners, leaseholders, service providers and employers all have different responsibilities to make reasonable adjustments so as to make the workplace more easily accessible to disabled employees. Wheelchair access is likely a given in most places, but specific chairs or a particular lighting or desk arrangement are also things that may assist employees with disabilities. These and other items may be easier to organise in a private coworking space, but problems may arise if the employee has a hot desk and furniture is moved around by those who are not familiar with the arrangements in place. Open communication between businesses, employees, and workplace providers is essential.
Management of human interaction
Coworking spaces are shared by a multitude of diverse individuals. Although this can create a positive community, there is also a risk of employees being exposed to harassment, discrimination and bullying from other users of the space, and your obligation to provide a safe working environment is no different. In your own workplace, the aim would be to provide adequate training to prevent such situations, or to identify the parties involved and take appropriate action if there are issues. With managers potentially working remotely from the employee, issues may not be picked up as early as in the office environment, and it may not be possible to identify other service users involved or to ensure that they all have appropriate training. Speaking regularly with employees is important, as is ensuring that providers deal with any issues quickly and appropriately and have suitable policies and reporting procedures.
Open or hot-desking coworking spaces also potentially pose increased risks to your confidential information. Investors, competitors, journalists, clients or suppliers could overhear conversations or see information displayed on screens and/or left in documents on the desk or printing areas. Furthermore, a shared Wi-Fi network may be more risky than a more secure private network in a permanent office.
If confidential information is a key consideration for your business, you may want to consider whether certain coworking arrangements are appropriate at all, or what measures can be put in place to address any increased risks. For example, a 'coworking space policy' could include:
- Requiring the employee to provide details of IT security arrangements to be checked by your own IT team. Allocating unique credentials and passwords to each person, employing a two-factor authentication and using a virtual private network application are all steps you could take to provide sufficient communications protection even over a shared public Wi-Fi connection;
- Requiring the use of soundproof phone booths, lockable storage, private spaces or privacy screens for laptops;
- Policies on printing materials on shared machines;
- Ensuring that the coworking space has appropriate video surveillance and/or office access management;
- Taking care that smart devices and speakers are not listening in (you can read more on this subject here).
Coworking spaces may be used for all manner of reasons and in all manner of ways, but if you do not have a permanent office from which your employee can work out of, who should pay for an appropriate working space if the home environment is not suitable for work for whatever reason? If you pay for a coworking space for an employee, is this a taxable benefit? Similarly, can you reimburse commuting costs tax free if the employee has no 'usual place of work'? These issues are likely to be highly fact specific but you should ensure you keep these under review.
Changing the arrangements
It may take some time before working practices stabilise and employers identify optimum arrangements for staff and the business. Whilst a coworking space may be a good option now for some or all of your employees, in time you may want to change this arrangement, including moving to a more permanent office environment. Some contractual flexibility over place of work in the terms of employment can be helpful and managing employee expectations as to whether arrangements are permanent, temporary or on trial. Consultation is likely to be key to establishing the new normal over time.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.