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My New Normal: Sheila Bird Co-Founder Atul Bansal On Why Going Back To The Office Will Be Like Having An Affair

This series aims to capture a moment in time, talking to men and women in commercial real estate about how their lives and businesses are being transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Atul Bansal is one of Manchester's most creative designers of workspace, credited with creating the Coolchester look of the city's media and tech sector.

Co-founder of interior design business Sheila Bird, Bansal now has a growing reputation outside his home city as an innovative (and sometimes weird) thinker.

With social distancing meaning lower density workspace, with less emphasis on direct human contact and more on safety, how can the modern office remain a place to think, collaborate and energise? Can we put the social back into distancing?

Bansal says it can be all those things, but not if you're working from home. And life beyond the front door will be different when most workplaces return from lockdown.

Bansal's daily walk

Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life and what you are doing in your spare time.

Bansal: There’s no balance in my life anymore. The pressure I give myself is founded on routine and I don’t have that anymore. Every day is a Sunday and I’m finding it hard but liberating at the same time.

I’m an early riser, but that’s changing slowly. I used to get up at 2.30am and head into town (Manchester) or to meet clients and collaborators, but now I give myself a lie in, I’m getting up around 3.30-4am. My routine was, get up, go to work, come home at 6 o’clock and my home was my cut off point; now my red front door is my full stop. I simply never worked from home so finding somewhere to sit and work at home is really difficult because I don’t feel welcome anywhere.

Bisnow: What is your company’s return-to-the-workplace plan? 

Bansal: We haven’t got one. I don’t think we need one. I think if we’d have sat down and worked out a plan at the start of all of this, we would have torn it up four or five times already.

Whatever the plan, I don’t think it can be led by the company, it needs to be a plan that each individual feels comfortable with. We have discovered in our small group of people that everyone’s plan is different. So, our back-to-work plan is to make sure everyone can do their own plan. That’s really simple to control and everyone can change their mind if they need or want to.

Bisnow: What will reopening businesses and workplaces look like for you personally?

Bansal: I think we need to be excited. I think it will be brilliant when all of this is over, it’s like falling in love again or having an affair. It’s fantastic! It’s going to be like a love affair with work, we are meeting this completely new person!

I’ve discovered local shops I didn’t know existed; we all have. This is what the virus will make us do; people are going to work from home more, people won’t go on public transport every day and local communities will be thriving with those working from home buying from them. People are going to talk to people more, they are going to know each other, that’s the revolution.

Bisnow: How will you manage the home front as stay-at-home restrictions ease and businesses reopen?

Bansal: It’s easy for me, my children have flown the nest and my wife will be delighted about me leaving the house. I’m invading her space at home and I’m never usually there but now I’m always here. So, on the home front, I think she will be relieved, but hopefully she will miss me and my cooking.

I’ll be really pleased to be meeting people again, not necessarily with work, just meeting people. In all honesty, I don’t know how it will all work; ask me again in a couple of months.

Basal at home

Bisnow: What is the state of your business at the moment?

Bansal: Uncertainty is a new reality for everyone and the slowing of the economy is noticeable, but we are lucky in that many of our clients have the means and the vision to be planning projects two to three years into the future.

At a time when many people are saying the office is dead it’s great to see the forward-thinking businesses we work with still moving forward with substantial investments in their workplaces. They, like us, realise that although flexible, remote working has its benefits, it makes innovation and culture building really difficult so businesses will still need the right spaces to help them do that. Many of our clients are in the creative, media and technology sector and have always seen the value in this and are quick to adapt and adopt new ways of working.

Bisnow: What was your impression of work from home before this got started? What is it now?

Bansal: I thought I’d hate it and I do hate it. I am constrained within rooms without options, I have no ability to change my environment significantly and the way I work is influenced by my environment. I know where to go if I want to meet people, I know where to go if I want quiet time or if I want to have a conversation with somebody that’s totally bonkers but I don’t have that option anymore. It’s not real, it’s very boring having no individuality. I’m not coping very well with that and I don’t think I ever will. Home is where I go to sleep and not having separation between work and home space is hard.

Bisnow: How is your company fostering community and maintaining its culture from a distance?

Bansal: Our new motto is to ‘bring social back into distancing’! As humans we need 3D experiences and we don’t have that with Zoom, in fact, Zoom Gloom has now been recognised as a medical condition. When we relate to people in a physical sense, our bodies are attuned to appreciate people in a different way, we don’t just look at people’s faces; the way they move, their body language, and their brains aren’t used to interacting through a screen.

So it’s not easy to foster community spirit over Zoom, there’s only so many online quizzes you can do. That said, the new technologies do help, it would be strange to imagine this lockdown without these new means of communication, it would feel a lot more isolating.

We’re currently using it weekly to check in with each other, make sure everyone is OK and well-informed. Although it’s no substitute for face to face contact, there is something nice about seeing people in their home environment that breaks down that barrier between work and home and enables people to be their true selves. 

Bisnow: How do you think the coronavirus could permanently affect the way real estate does business?

Bansal: There will be a massive boost for local spaces, shops and communities and it will hugely affect traditional offices. People will have to look harder at what they are offering and be more honest about it. It isn’t about creating a space that has one purpose, it’s about multi-functional space, I think spaces will be more experience driven so I’m really intrigued by it all. The amount of choice businesses will have will be huge.

I also think we will start to see frictionless experiences. We’re not allowed to touch anything anymore, but this has become a really important part of life. We will need to replace touch with gestures and offices will become spaces that bring balance to working from home.

Workspaces will be totally focused on experiences and thinking. Spaces need to change. They will need to hug people on a Monday when everyone’s a bit miserable and be happy for people on Friday when the sun’s shining.

Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about right now?

Bansal: Walking into a bar and having a chat with somebody I don’t know. I’m looking forward to random moments that aren’t controlled, randomness is what makes humans what they are. I’m looking forward to that serendipity, something that you don’t plan. Also, being able to turn on the television without listening to all the crap. I want happiness back and it’s our job to help make that happen.