Transcript: Episode 19
Is it time to go back to the office?
people, office, ucl, work, pandemic, organisation, space, public transport, home, risk, individual, magic wand, podcast, virus, knowledge, distancing
Lena Ciric, Kerstin Sailer, Simon Addyman, Vivienne Parry
Vivienne Parry 00:03
Hello and welcome to Coronavirus, The Whole Story - UCL’s award winning podcast all about well, you guessed it Coronavirus. My name is Vivienne Parry. I'm a writer, broadcaster UCL alumna and your guide to the interdisciplinary research here at UCL that's been fighting, understanding and helping to reduce the effects of the pandemic.
Some of you may be listening to this part on the way to work today, which is perfect timing on your part because this week's episode is all about being back in the office, and how we can do all of that safely. And if this is your first time listening to the whole story, can I recommend something for your journey home from our extensive back catalogue encompassing episodes about masks, social distancing vaccines, and well, anything else? Coronavirus related. You'll find every last one of them on our website, or wherever you download your podcasts. For now though, join me And my guest this week who come from the department's of engineering and architecture. My first guest this week is Dr. Lena Ciric from the Department of Civil, environmental and geomatic engineering. Lena originally trained as a biologist and now applies biology to engineering and vice versa. She leads the healthy infrastructure research group at UCL, which investigates engineering solutions to reduce the spread of infectious disease. My second guest is Dr. Kerstin Sailer, a reader in social and spatial networks in the Bartlett School of Architecture. Kerstin's research investigates how our environment affects our behaviour using complex networks to solve complex real world problems. I'm also joined by Dr. Simon Addyman, an associate professor in project management from the Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management. Simon has both worked and studied project management in just about every field imaginable from property to public infrastructure.
To humanitarian relief, Lena, I wanted to start with you. And can I just say to everyone that we're recording this on the day that it was announced that coronavirus, infection rates are doubling every seven days or so. So I want to talk to you about getting to work because despite what the fingers are doing at the moment, that's what we're being encouraged to do. You're working on UCL viral, which is a project to reduce the spread of the virus on public transport. So what can you tell us about that project?
Lena Ciric 02:34
Well, that project is only just kicking off. So there's not very much I can tell you at this stage. Other than that, we're very excited to work on it. During the project, we're going to do a number of things across a few different disciplines. So I'll be carrying out some microbiological sampling. And then some of my colleagues will be looking at air flows and carrying out some computational simulations of what happens within tubes. trains and buses. And we'll also be looking at passenger crowding. So where is it that people go to once they bought a vehicle? And what do they touch in which way do they face. So the plan is to integrate all of those things to come up with a tool that can be used to reduce the risk of the spread of the virus. And the whole point is that we're working with Transport for London, so we'll be collaborating with them throughout helping us select the relevant vehicles helping us disseminate the findings of the work.
Vivienne Parry 03:29
So we'll look forward to that when it comes out. But meanwhile, what kind of precautions should people be taking when getting to and from work on public transport? Let's take buses first.
Lena Ciric 03:41
I have to say I have not been on any public transport since probably mid March. And it's one of the things that I'm the most worried about, to be honest with you are
Vivienne Parry 03:52
worried about as a microbiologist are worried about as a just a citizen.
Lena Ciric 03:56
Well, both to be honest as a human being, but also As a microbiologist, I think ultimately the things that one should be worried about when when trying to assess their risk of exposure to a pathogen. And in this case, it's sort of to is, you know, is it a space that's confined? Is it a space where you're going to encounter a lot of people that you don't normally encounter? Is the ventilation system a good one? Are you going to be touching surfaces? And for public transport? Really, it's a yes to all of those things. So that's not to say that you can't do it safely, but the risk is a bit higher. So ultimately, it's it's like any other indoor space. And there are a number of different factors in play when you're thinking about the spread of infectious agents and so on.
Vivienne Parry 04:45
So we're hoping for instance, for people to you be universally wearing masks.
Lena Ciric 04:50
Yes, absolutely. Yep. So I think I think the best thing that people can do is well, first of all, don't travel unless you have to, if you do have to, and and, you know, I think I think most of us are going to be travelling more and more. I'm going to brave the tube next week. I think absolutely face covering, put that face covering on before you get on the tube or on the bus. Make sure you don't fiddle with your with your face covering during the journey. Don't have your nose exposed, don't have you hanging off your air or under your chin. That's not going to protect you. The chin
Vivienne Parry 05:22
hammock is a very popular,
Lena Ciric 05:24
isn't it? Yes, I've seen I think of all of the mask wearing I've seen probably about 20% has been cracked. And that's what you see, you know there and then there's also there's so much to it, how to take it off and then how to dispose of it or clean it and so on. So, yes, make sure that you've had a good look at how to use all of the personal protective equipment including face coverings. And then you know, it's inevitable on a public transport vehicle that you're going to touch some surfaces because otherwise you'll probably fall over. So the Main thing is just to while you're on the vehicle, don't be touching your face too much. Don't really fiddle with too many of your things because you might contaminate them. And then once you end your journey, you can sanitise your hands or wash them if you if you'll go to the office, and you can use the toilets there.
Vivienne Parry 06:16
So the interesting thing about gloves that I've seen, so people think somehow that once they put on gloves that they're invincible, and yes, touch their face. That's fine. Because their gloves.
Lena Ciric 06:27
Yeah, that I mean, ultimately, it's just another another. It's just like your skin and and I think it really depends on different gloves, but some of them don't have the natural oils that we have on our hands. So so things can stick to them even better. So yeah, it's a really interesting one, an interesting psychological one. And I think it's actually similar for masks as well that we feel like Well, I've put a mask on so I'm going to be fine or I've put some gloves on so I'm totally protected but you forget that really That can become contaminated too. So yeah, gloves, great. They'll keep your hands clean underneath them, but they themselves will become dirty. And then you might dirty your hands when you're taking them off by touching their outside.
Vivienne Parry 07:13
So let's move now to the tube because particularly Russia, I mean, buses, we may actually have more chance of a seat. Not don't write in. But on the tube, often we're, you know, cheek by jowl with other people. And that can feel pretty alarming, especially for those of us who've really not experienced that for six months.
Lena Ciric 07:37
Yes, yes. Well, I think I think ultimately it is, in a way, it's good that it feels alarming, because it's going to encourage us to avoid doing it. I think, if possible, try to travel at off peak time so that you're not encountering as many people and yeah, I mean, I think even in non pandemic times, it can be quite awkward. comfortable to be so close up to to strangers after a day's work or as you're going into work. So it is it is going to be uncomfortable for a while. But I think the best, the best thing we can do is just to try to find a slightly more empty corner and just make sure that that that face covering is well fitting.
Vivienne Parry 08:19
What about cycling because, you know, when the the website that was offering bike repairs crashed, didn't it after a kind of nanosecond? Because people were obviously so keen to do it. But what kinds of social distancing should cyclists be following because I'm always alarmed by those, you know, like are allowed to come racing down the road panting Yeah, that's a problem. I
Lena Ciric 08:47
think Outdoors is definitely much much safer than indoors. There's there's a lot more fresh air, there's a lot more air turbulence. So anything that any respiratory droplets that may or may not be contaminated with virus particles will get dispersed a lot more quickly than than indoors. But I think really you'd have to be in someone's slipstream to to be at risk. So
Vivienne Parry 09:10
I think the main thing is I'm always in someone I'm the slowest cyclist in the lane. I don't know when you're all cursing at
Lena Ciric 09:21
me. I think the main thing is probably just to to not be too close to anyone and I think then it you know, you should be pretty safe. I did I actually cycle today, maybe only for the third time since lockdown and I'd forgotten to take my face covering off and it was pretty uncomfortable to to cycle with the mask on. But I mean, I guess if if you're feeling particularly worried then maybe wearing a face covering would be a good idea.
Vivienne Parry 09:49
Okay, last question for you. You've outlined a lot of the things that we'll need to do to travel safely on transport but How much of that is feasible?
Lena Ciric 10:02
Yes, that's that's the big one really, isn't it? It's, I think, for things to, to work smoothly and for us to be as exposed to it as little risk as possible, it really involves a lot of adaptation from everyone. So, you know, maybe we need to start thinking about working at different, you know, instead of having the nine to five and the associated rush hours, maybe we need to be thinking about working a bit more flexibly in the future. But I agree it's a really difficult one. And ultimately, people need to get to work and even I think even at the height of lockdown, a lot of key workers had to take public transport to get to their workplaces. So it's not like, you know, it's not like it was totally empty those times. So I think we just need to be extra careful. Make sure that we We are using the face coverings and washing our hands as much as possible. If we do need to use public transport, and then if we can avoid it, it's probably a good idea to do so. Just to minimise the risk. I'm not I'm not saying that, you know, going on public transport is is the worst thing you could ever do at all. And I think if done correctly, it's quite safe but ultimately, because because Coronavirus, you know, the outcome is, is pretty mild for most of us, however, you don't know until it's too late. And therefore, you know, we really need to be careful about the risk that we expose ourselves to because it could be that we might not be alright, or that we might give it to somebody else who might not be alright, and that would be awful.
Vivienne Parry 11:46
Okay, thanks very much indeed for that. Now, you've been looking at the journey to work. Kerstin, you've been writing about how the pandemic has provided an opportunity to change office culture just in the way that Lena has been. Talking about, you know, changing the hours that we go to work and thinking very much about the kind of office that workers could be returning to. Do you think our office needs differ now compared to what they used to be? And how much of that is down to the pandemic? And how much what was the general trend beforehand?
Kerstin Sailer 12:20
That's excellent questions. So I think to some degree, the office has experienced changes forever, you know, the office has never been a fixed system. So throughout the decades, the office has changed a lot of times through technology. So for example, the advent of the telephone, and has really made offers as possible in the first place and certainly mobile technologies, turn the whole thing upside down again. And I think the the office that people are returning to now is certainly a very different workplace from what people were used to. And that's absolutely something we need to keep in mind. The first one is obviously, if you need to keep distancing in place is a much reduced capacity. And that relates a lot to open plan offices, which are the most common form in the UK, with often very tightly packed floor plates and floor plans. And if you do distancing, and if you stick to the two metre guidelines, the capacity of an average office, it depends a little bit on the layout is roughly reduced to 20%. So that means only 20% of the people can be in at any one moment in time. And that could be more or less depending on additional features you might want to instal in offices. So for example, I hear that plastic screens are pretty much sold out and very popular because with plastic screens and you can take the distance Sitting down a bit so you could place more people into the office. But ultimately, I would just like to echo what Lana has said, on, you know, how can we reduce the risk? and to what degree? Can we work in different ways and in different manners. So do we really all need to go to the office from nine to five? And it's interesting with the, you know, kind of return to the office is very much what I would be happy to discuss, return to work is such a wrong term because we've been working for out. Oh, yes.
Vivienne Parry 14:38
Hello, Kerstin, thank you so much for saying that. I can't tell you the number of people that jump up and down when we say return to work. When actually for many of us, we've been working harder than we've ever worked where we've been at home. Exactly, exactly. Looking after the kids. Yes. schooling
Kerstin Sailer 14:58
back in school this week. Array For how long? We don't know.
Vivienne Parry 15:01
So just that you've touched on some of the changes that are being made, what of these changes do you think will be permanent? And do you think this signals are really different approach to Office design from now on?
Kerstin Sailer 15:21
I think office design will change. Because flexible working, has begun to be increasingly popular among staff, but very, very little endorsed by employers. Because a lot of employers or a lot of cultures would still work by presenteeism. So the idea that only if I can see my employees working, are they actually doing good work? And the pandemic has really forced us to engage in experiment of overnight pretty much for a lot of us You know, we had to work from home, we had to adapt, we had to, you know, battle technology all on our own, and do all of the other things that we've been doing in our private lives and at home and with children at home with people that need to care at home, etc. So that experiment, I think, has shifted the perception of many people. And a lot of surveys have been done over the last month. And there were two interesting things to note. One was that most people say they want to continue working from home or flexibly to a higher degree than before. So I think that's interesting. And the other one is that a lot of people have reported that working from home was actually more productive for them. So on average, again, I think that's interesting. There's probably a huge range and a huge bandwidth of experiences and problems and challenges that people have had, but on average people said they were surprisingly productive.
Vivienne Parry 17:05
And we shouldn't ever forget should we cast in the huge range of inequalities here because for those of us lucky enough to have, you know, a garden and a reasonable sized home, it's been fine and lockdowns been actually quite enjoyable for some people. For those people who haven't got access to space to green space, who are finding themselves with a lot of people with very poor facilities, for instance, for broadband. That's very difficult.
Kerstin Sailer 17:40
That's absolutely right. And I think the inequalities have been staggering. With all those respects you've just described, and the I really felt, for example, for my PhD students, a lot of whom are in very small accommodation, and if they can't go out there really ice lated they really have substandard facilities, some don't even have a desk. So they literally work with their laptops on their labs. So I think there have been huge inequalities in that. But I think going forward, how it will change office design in a way is that I think we will need fewer, fewer areas for office spaces. If for example, people will work from home one or two days a week, it will massively reduce the pressure on public transport. A lot of people have said when you ask them what was the best thing about working from home. Number one is no commute. So what we've been talking about earlier is absolutely spot on. So people have enjoyed working from home. People have enjoyed being able to better struck work life balance in some respects. But of course what we're missing out by not being Unable to go into the office is a whole range of things on exchange of ideas, feeling that you're contributing to something bigger sense of belonging, organisational identities, and of course, things that were not planned. So chance encounters, and all of those kinds of things. So I think in some ways, we have to slowly step wise in reduced kind of ways, return to the office as much as we can. But I think at the same time, I'm very concerned about risks and about health implications. And a lot of people think that they will come back to the office as it used to be, but it will clearly not be the same kind of experience. Well, thank you for that.
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Vivienne Parry 20:07
Let's turn now to Simon Addyman, who, as you remember, was from the Bartlett's and he's a project manager and he just completed a study on office environments and returning to work through the UCL innovation and enterprise team, something a lot of people are really keen to get back into the office or for their staff to get back into the office or that I'm not sure that there's a completely aligned. Why do you think that is? What's the office actually good for?
Simon Addyman 20:31
Well, I think you say there's probably a difference between those two things, isn't their staff going back or wanting to go back and office owners or organisational leaders wanting their staff to come back? So I think there's there's certainly economic reasons for, for wanting staff to come back. Certainly for building owners and property owners whose, you know, their whole kind of business cases is built on the occupation. So that's a necessity. You know, there are new models out there around how we we rent and use office space. And I think those types of building owners are having quite significant problems in attracting people back. I mean, that they have a sense of mental well being, I think is one of the things we found in our report. You know, the environment and this is knowledge we've learned from the healthcare architecture area, is that you know, the work environments become environments that you know, promote a kind of sense of coherence and support and mental health and well being. And as Kirsten has highlighted, you know, there are those places where they create a sense of belonging and identity. So in that sense, people are wanting to get back for some of that. And, and equally those owners of those buildings are an organisational leaders are keen for those people to come back. So I think that's You know, the office is a is a place we need in some sense. And it helps us create, you know, a shared meaning of what our work life is all around as we have those those interactions. So, so I think that's, you know, that creates the workspace is a good space, and one that we need to get back to,
Vivienne Parry 22:19
and not to mention the press effect. Indeed, all those Yeah, small businesses. I mean, practice not a small business, but all those businesses that rely on people going to office spaces for their income. Yeah, I mean, whether it's a, you know, a little cafe or a, you know, dry cleaners or whatever, absolutely, and how
Simon Addyman 22:39
much of our social interaction work social interaction informs how we develop the knowledge we have to take place in those spaces. You know, we pop out for lunch with a colleague and we compare notes and understandings of things we need to do and we will back into the office with a new sense of meaning and understanding of what we're trying to do. I think
Vivienne Parry 23:05
you're being discreet there, Simon about the number of us that hit the bar after work
Simon Addyman 23:13
But you know, we do we do our work in these places, don't worry, they are connected to, you know, the social media that we're in. And they help inform our work in, you know, the work that we do. And they're an important part of our environment. And when we're sitting at home working, when we're not doing that, well, we're doing it in a very different way. Through you know, the no virtual mediums on our computers, we may be, you know, dropping notes to people, etc. But we're not popping around and connecting that social space of the pub or, or the cafeteria cafe or the sandwich bar, coffee house or whatever we're not, we're not connecting those two spaces together. So in some ways, you know, we shouldn't necessarily look at the office space as an isolate In space, you know is our work and our understanding of our work and our knowledge of what we do is intimately interconnected between how we interact in those different spaces.
Vivienne Parry 24:12
So is it possible Simon to build an office which is great for work, but not for Coronavirus spread? I mean, what should officers be doing to make their and yeah,
Simon Addyman 24:24
I'm not quite too sure that's the right question. It's a good question. And I think is a question that's subject to our knowledge of the virus is relatively easy to answer in that the construction industry can certainly certainly has the capability and the knowledge to build that sort of building, as I say, subject to our knowledge of how the virus works. You know, our knowledge of building structures continues to develop in many ways throughout the world. So I don't think kind of building a new one per se would be the problem. I think we could do. That if we understood the virus enough, I think the question more becomes around, you know, how do we recreate our spaces and interdependently with that recreate our working practices to allow these, you know, these buildings, these office spaces to function and for us to be able to do our work. So I think that's really the fundamental problem. At the moment, you know, we're probably going to see, you know, one of the outcomes of the virus may be may well be that our cities are less dense, you know, some people will continue to work from home or there may be other various kind of reasons, that our cities are less dense. So there are less people coming in there. So so we need to rethink the way we interact between the work we do and what the workspaces offer. And I think that's probably the next step. So if we think about the first step, that everybody has done post pandemic is to understand it set out a load of guidelines as to how to return to work, what the officers should do. I think everybody has that guidance. Now. In fact, there's we're probably overflowing with that guidance. How we now use that guidance to recreate our workspaces is probably, you know, more problematic and the next stage of the development of understanding this,
Vivienne Parry 26:24
it's given a lot of work to project managers, for sure. For people who are heading back into the office, who perhaps really worried about returning to the office environment, what they can do to prepare themselves.
Simon Addyman 26:38
Yeah, that is a good, that is a good question. And I'm sure we all have our own stories around that. And I think that's one of the problems here, isn't it? You know, in some ways, it is a very individual thing, but we are trying to apply, you know, general rules to do something we don't yet completely understand and One thing we've found in our study is that, you know, the kind of vulnerability assessment of not just the workplace, but then the individuals environment is something we really need to explore, you know, groups that may have previously be considered vulnerable or not, or those that weren't vulnerable now are vulnerable. So what does what does that mean? So there's this kind of strange relationship different I think, from pre COVID in that relationship between the individual and the individual needs and the organisational needs and the decisions that the that the individual makes where they may have previously in a very kind of habitual managers got up and gone to work on public transport there may be thinking about that now in a different way. So I think there is plenty of guidance out there and I know Kirsten and Lena have talked much about that so far. I think there's there's a need in this kind of next level. Ways to really understand and strengthen that the dialogue that goes on between the workspace and the individual and those that are responsible for the workspace or the organisational leaders. So this this is not just about creating a kind of narrative and publishing it. It's very active in having an ongoing dialogue between the individual and the organisation to understand how that whole environment right from leaving home to go into work can consume them and their potentially new needs post COVID.
Vivienne Parry 28:34
So I think so you can see something and can't use I'm in like a for instance, the the 30 year old hot shot with a corner office, and he now gets booted out because that office is really needed for the approaching retirement. person who works in accounts are vital to the organisation but particularly vulnerable because of age or perhaps that The underlying conditions.
Simon Addyman 29:01
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that's a nice example. And so how is the organised? How is the organisation going to have that dialogue with those individuals? And how perhaps now we need to think about how is the organisation going to support those individuals beyond the workspace? Because maybe that retiree, you know, they have the issue of travelling into work as well. So, the workspace becomes connected in a wider way to the individuals, you know, space outside of work. And I, you know, very strongly think that this this is the next stage we need to understand how does this communication, communication work and there are, you know, there are examples of organisations out there now starting to do that, but I think it's a sensitive balance between just kind of creating the organisations creating a story saying, Look, it's safe to come back, and then very actively engaging in a dialogue and allowing the individuals to have that dialogue back with the organiser. Of course, that's not easy. It's a challenge. But that's that's the next stage. I think.
Vivienne Parry 30:05
So let me ask you now, if there was, I always give people magic ones in these podcasts. Some if you had a magic wand and, you know, you could pass it to an employer on behalf of their staff, what would you What would you say that was the one thing that employers could could do that would really, really help in this return to work?
Simon Addyman 30:29
I think the employer really needs to recognise the significant breakdown that has happened. You know, I think this really has, you know, and clearly evident that this has disrupted our working patterns and our working routines. And we need to find that relationship between employers and employees, that enables both parties to recreate their patterns of action now, and I think if I had a magic wand, I would Find a way of facilitating that dialogue and explaining what that dialogue is. So that everybody is able to maintain the stability that we all desire and get back into those patterns of action with a minimum disruption as possible. I think we take the magic wand away, how we actually do that becomes quite problematic. And I think that's where, you know, we as universities can work with practitioners to help co create that knowledge. And that's one thing we found in our study that actually, much of the knowledge we got from our study was not just what the practitioners were telling us, not just what us as academics were exploring, but how those two parties came together to understand what the problem was and how we might go about resolving it.
Vivienne Parry 31:46
Thank you. And I just thank you particularly for pointing out the role of universities in all of this. You know, they have such a critical role to play, which is why of course we do this podcast Lana, let me just ask you, and hand on that magic wand if you if you would, Simon, but what's the one thing that you would say to transport authorities in order to help us all feel safer?
Lena Ciric 32:15
I think it's invest a bit of time into collecting some evidence about how safe it is and how this how risks could be minimised. So I think it's, I don't think there's really anything specific that could be done right now there's there were a few things that need to be investigated first, and then some good solutions can be put in place. I think it's definitely not a time for knee jerk, you know, put in all of these antimicrobial surfaces or get some filters that claim they can do everything cuz that sort of thing you know, is great for PR in the short term, but might not work very well in the long term. So it's, it's about being open to collaborating and to thinking about making some changes to make their passengers safer.
Vivienne Parry 33:12
So real world evidence and not minimising things by saying, It's totally safe when clearly people all appreciate that it never can be totally safe. So let me finally go to custom What about you? What about and the office side of it? Again? What changes would you make if you could change your magic one, the one change in offices that you think that would be really helpful? You've got unlimited money, by the way.
Kerstin Sailer 33:43
Oh, fantastic. Oh, I love that idea of the magic one too. I'm a big Harry Potter fan. So the obvious thing to do would be to cast petroleum charms for everyone that protects them from the virus but I guess that's not quite realistic. So I think in terms of office organisations or in terms of architects kind of responding to those challenges, I would, I would say architects really need to help lead a discussion about the office space, how we want it to be. So really engaging in reimagining the office space as a place where we all want to come together in the future. And not to kind of some of the design guidelines or some of the things we have to do at the moment in office space, is really to keep people apart. And it's not the logic of how offices have been designed over the last decades, we've always focused on bringing people together as much as possible. And I think we have to, you know, quite literally survive this period right now. With all of the safeguarding that we can possibly put in place. Reduce occupancy levels, installed plastic, you know, the perspex screens, if you have to do one way systems try to avoid people bumping into each other for now, but I think in the longer term, we really need to work on reimagining the office and having a conversation around the kind of office that we would want in the future. And because as Simon has very eloquently put it, it's part of our shared meaning of how we make sense of the world. And I really want a nice office back where I can hang out with colleagues and where I can meet people, and where I can have those meaningful conversations over a cup of tea. But of course, that's post pandemic. So once our scientific colleagues have done their vaccine wonders,
Vivienne Parry 35:48
I'm detecting a bit of office nostalgia from all of you. And if I could just take charge of my magic wand and do the thing I do. Make sure that everybody had decent broadband. I think that it's become such an important element of our lives, whether it's for kids in school for students, but for everyone. So that's it. I wave my magic wand. And you have, of course, been listening to Coronavirus. The whole story episode was presented by myself Vivienne Parry produced by UCL with support from the UCL health of the public and UCL grand challenges and edited by the wondrous Cerys Bradley. Our guests today, and thank you to all of you, you were terrific. We're Dr. Lena Ciric, Dr. Simon Addyman, and Dr. Kerstin Sailor. If you'd like to hear more of these podcasts from UCL Minds, of course, you would subscribe wherever you download your podcasts or visit ucl.ac.uk forward slash Coronavirus. This podcast is brought to you by UCL Minds bringing together UCL knowledge, insights and expertise through event digital content and activities open to everyone To be with you again soon and perhaps even in an office.