While the pandemic has led many businesses to rethink their physical workspaces, the wheels were already in motion for Saffron Housing Trust, a social housing association based in Long Stratton, Norfolk. “We made the decision in 2019 that we needed to look at both our offices,” said Catherine Hodds, Director of People & Culture.

At the time, the organisation occupied two separate premises – Saffron Barn in Long Stratton and Helen House in neighbouring village Tharston. “We tended to have our operational teams at The Barn, and all the other departments like finance and HR were at Helen House, so there was this kind of separation between the two,” Catherine added. “The strategic aim was to put everyone in one building – and at that point, we decided that one building would be Saffron Barn.

“We started thinking about using some of our outbuildings at The Barn and converting those into social space. We had a very small kitchen, so we didn't have anywhere for people to congregate for lunch.”

An interior and workplace design consultancy drew up plans for the new-look Saffron Barn, which would see the number of desks reduced from approximately 150 to 90. “And then the pandemic hit,” said Catherine.

Three months into lockdown – in June 2020 – Saffron asked its 236 employees how they’d like to use the office going forward. “We asked them what's been good and bad about the pandemic, and it was really clear that people were really enjoying working from home but wanted the flexibility to be able to come into the office every now and again,” said Catherine.

This feedback informed changes to the initial plans for the office. “We were managing to work from home very efficiently, so we made the decision to go from 90 desks to 28,” said Catherine.

Employees also had a say on the colour scheme of the new office. “It didn’t have to be on brand – we wanted to match it to the sort of space we wanted it to feel like,” Catherine explained. “That's why we ended up with grey and green – because people liked that kind of natural colour palette.”

The renovation was completed in December 2020, with the new office opening on April 11, 2021 – three months later than planned due to the third lockdown.

Staff can book any of the 28 fully-equipped desks – and there are flexible workspaces for meetings, including ‘railway carriages’, team tables, project tables and booths. “All of our execs moved out of their offices so they could be turned into meeting rooms, and we redid our boardroom so we can use it as a training space,” said Catherine.

“It's delivered exactly what we wanted it to, which is create flexible spaces where people can work consistently if they want to – or just come in occasionally and meet colleagues,” she added.

Catherine explained that any employees who need to be in the office for mental health and wellbeing reasons are prioritised for desk space. Beyond that, staff are free to come in as often or as little as they wish.

“For us, it was you either trust your employees to do what they've effectively been doing for two years – or you don't,” she said. “It didn't make sense that we would only trust people three days a week, and the other two days we would need them to prove they’re at work.”

Going from two offices to one has also helped employees get to know people from different teams. “People often talk about silos in organisations, and I feel like we have made really good strides in trying to knock those down,” said Catherine. “We have seen much more collaboration across teams than we would have done before – and people just getting to know each other in a different way.”

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