Campus Director of the Welsh Innovation Centre for Enterprise (Welsh ICE), Jamie McGowan, shares his views on the possible changes to the workspace and how things could look as an easing of lockdown appears ever closer.

Prior to the lockdown, the Office for National Statistics suggests that only 30 per cent of UK employees had ever worked from home, a figure which will have now seen a sharp rise with all but essential workers either working from home or on furlough.

At the Welsh ICE Campus, we have closed all co-working spaces and only allow those with their own office space access to the building, with only an occasional ICE staff presence to deal with the post and essential on-site admin. We did this in agreement with government guidelines in order to act safely, responsibly, and to move to a new way of working and supporting our member businesses.

This is something that co-working, startup hubs and shared offices across the country have had to deal with, and we are all being led by the advice of the Welsh Government, who are rightly keeping the message simple - stay at home.

But with the UK government encouraging workers in England to go back to work if they cannot work from home, whether it is classed as essential work or not, there could possibly, maybe, if all goes well, potentially, don’t bank on it but it might be - be the beginning of the end of the lockdown tunnel!

“But how will offices look when we start to return to work in Wales?

“With giants like Twitter telling their teams they can work from home indefinitely if they wish, there is certainly going to be a rather large shake-up when things return to some semblance of normality. But what will the ‘new normal’ look like?

I suppose all we know for certain is that nothing is certain at all. However, one thing that we can say is that things are unlikely to be the same.

Although it will be industry-specific, as more and more businesses realise they can operate fairly close to their targets without having to have large offices filled with staff, they will quickly begin to seek less costly alternatives.

Smaller office space will be an option many consider, possibly rotating staff between home and office across the week. Others may look to use co-working spaces and hotdesk so they can benefit from the person-to-person collaboration you still can’t quite get from video calls.

However, what the co-working or shared spaces will look like in a post Covid-19 world is still very much unknown. There will be lots to consider, such as increased cleaning, the distance between workers, one-way walking systems, congregating spaces such as the tea and coffee stations or even security, in terms of having to keep doors open to minimise hand contact. Safety will, of course, be the priority, and at the moment we just don’t know how long or how stringent the social distancing measures will need to be.

There’s also the question that can be quite tough to answer in a post-pandemic world. If all someone needs to work is a desk, a computer and the internet - then why will they take the risk of coming into an office at all?

This has, in a way, always been the case for our co-working and hot-desking members. Many of them work from home a few days a week and previously worked full-time from home.

Normally, our answer would be, it’s not about ‘can’ you only work from home, it’s about whether you ‘want’ to. Today, that resolution is far less clear.

But what remains true is that Welsh ICE is about more than just office space, it’s about the community first and foremost. It’s about the natural networking that happens from chance encounters or overheard problems that you know you can help solve. It’s about a sense of social belonging and the feeling you are a part of something a bit larger.

A total of 74 per cent of businesses at ICE have traded with each other and 77 per cent of new businesses survive past their first three years - compared to the UK average of 61 per cent. That happens because our members work together and support each other.

While the support that we provide to those looking to start or grow their businesses has naturally moved online, and is actually doing very well, it will still be no substitute for the unplanned and sometimes game-changing opportunities that sharing time and space with like-minded individuals will bring.

Quite how we rise to these challenges is something that will occupy strategists for some time to come, but one thing is certain - the small business community in Wales has adapted before, and will do so again.