Persevering in a pandemic: moving forward with Knotel London’s Head of Design

Bringing an adaptive, tailored workspace to fruition is no mean feat at the best of times. From build-out to workplace strategy to interior design to fit-out and move-in, every finished space is a result of meticulous planning and coordination. Knotel’s London team had a robust process in place, but — as almost every company can attest to — it was no longer business as usual when the coronavirus hit in March.

Against the odds and in the face of a number of logistic challenges, Knotel London has managed to deliver eight completed spaces to customers with minimal disruption to predicted timelines. We sat down with the London Head of Design, Monica Innes, to talk about one particular customer space and find out more about this masterclass in resourcefulness.

Set the scene for us, how did the arrival of the coronavirus initially impact the team?

Towards the end of February 2020, we started to hear of cases being reported throughout Europe. Our Paris colleagues switched to remote work during the first week of March. All Knotel’s offices that remained open did a trial “work from home” day on the 13th of March, which turned out to be the real thing, as we didn’t end up going back before the UK officially entered lockdown on the 23rd March. Then, at the end of March, some of our team entered the furlough scheme.

We were in shock over how rapidly everything had been upended, so the remaining team members regrouped to make a plan of action. After ensuring the health and safety of our team and contractors, our first priority was clear: Defence. We called it Project Ferguson, inspired by Alex Ferguson, one of the greatest football (soccer) managers of all time, who once said “Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.” Facing uncertainty in pretty much every aspect of our business, we focused on providing the best experience possible for our existing customers, including the 13 companies who were currently in the design process. We knew that if we wanted to bring our valued teammates back from furlough, we had to step up and take control.

How were those first few days and weeks?

There was no time to waste with feeling deflated and demoralised. Our business is about flexibility, and it was time to put that mentality to work. We gave ourselves a pep talk and switched our mentality to a ferocious state of positivity and, more importantly, organisation.

Of course, it wasn’t just our business that was impacted. The contractors, environmental branding producers, and installers that we typically work with were also furloughed during this time. Again, it was just about meticulously streamlining what remained within our control, specifically, packaging everything into easily digestible folders for our vendors to pick back up when they reopened. Customer calls were constant in the weeks after lockdown started as we worked through every last detail. We dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” as there was no room for error. We needed our contractors to hit the ground running as soon as they were able to safely.

When did things begin to pick back up again?

We had asked our construction teams to put their tools down until we could ensure safe worksite conditions and social distancing, which we were able to do in early May. Of course, this meant that move-in dates were necessarily pushed back, so we stayed in close contact with customers during that period to assure them that we would deliver as soon as humanly possible. We're lucky to have fantastic partnerships with our customers and everyone was very understanding about the possibility of delays.

Our environmental branding producers were able to reopen on the 12th May, and thanks to our preparation during lockdown, they were able to begin printing vinyl samples immediately. This was important as there was one project in particular that we had to deliver in a matter of weeks, which gave us limited time to review and finalise the samples before installation.

Is this the part where the squeegee comes in?

Yes! Government advice was that everyone who could work from home should work from home, which included me. This meant that all samples had to be sent to my apartment for review. It was incredibly difficult to sign off such small scale samples, knowing that their application was going to be the main feature of the space. To get a proper look at them I “installed” them on my apartment windows and shower screen with a squeegee. Which was a good thing, because they were definitely not up to scratch. It was a very technical graphic, and it needed to be perfect. Two days later the next set of samples arrived, which were better but still not right. This process continued over the next week and a half. Finally, we landed on the correct iteration.

This customer was scheduled to move in on 15th June, which meant that we needed to be finished on site by 8th June to give us enough time to fix any snags. We also had to ensure that everyone entering the site was adhering to social distancing requirements. This meant coordinating furniture installers, AV installers, decorators, electricians, cleaners, photographers, and the Knotel Project team —who all needed access to the site to hit the move-in date. And then there was the issue with the lift…

Oh no...

The goods lift (freight elevator) was out of action after being decommissioned during lockdown and in need of repair. So, we had an entire floor of furniture being moved up five stories using just the stairs and one heavily regulated public lift. It was less than ideal, to say the least. And there was another tenant moving into the building, who also needed access to the lift.

How did you work around that?

We gave the furniture installers access first. Then the decorators, then the electricians and AV installers and finally the cleaners. The Knotel Project team was onsite throughout to manage the delivery of each team. We were there in the summer heat, wearing face masks, 2 meters apart and with hand sanitiser and disinfectant sprays at the ready for anyone and every surface that needed them. To help keep the furniture installers on track, we were also moving and arranging furniture ourselves due to the disruption caused by the goods lift being out of action. Delays were not acceptable, as we had a clearly allotted time frame for each contractor to ensure social distancing.

So, were you able to complete the job on time?

In the end we managed to deliver this incredibly difficult project through the willingness of the team to find creative solutions and to adapt to circumstances that changed daily. We were enormously proud to complete the first global Knotel project since the coronavirus required us all to work from home.

Since then, we have continued to deliver on projects. We just completed our eighth move-in since reopening began, and we’re continuing to sign new customers who need flexibility in their spaces more than ever. We’ve also been able to bring back many of our furloughed teammates, and we are working hard on bringing back the rest!

As we start to cautiously return to “normal life,” we have so much gratitude for the tenacity and determination of this team, which worked hard throughout lockdown to deliver these projects as expediently as possible for our customers.