Paul Black & Alpha Group – Preparing for a new workplace future
29 April, 2021
As we all embark on a gradual return to normality post-pandemic, Paul Black can afford himself the luxury of being optimistic that his teams in Northern Ireland and across the British Isles are likely to be busier and busier.
Paul’s Alpha Group, from its Belfast roots, has grown into one of the UK and Ireland’s leading office design and office furniture specialists, responsible for a wide range of workplace environments across the islands. With workplaces undergoing the kind of change no one could have envisaged just over a year ago, the Group is well placed to reap the benefits. “It’s going to be a slow return to office working and there’s no doubt that it is going to be different,” says Paul Black. “Like almost everyone else, I don’t think we’ll ever see a 100% return to office working. “We have all seen, ourselves included, that home working does work. So going forward it will be about proactively managing the space that we have, making it safer for employees and for visitors. We’re on site in Belfast now re-purposing workplaces on behalf of clients. They are creating a destination for their people, with the expectation that they’ll come in two or maybe three days a week. With a third or half occupancy at most, they take all the pressure off the available space. “If you had asked me 15 or 20 years ago what we did, I’d have said that we sell desks.
Five years ago, it became more about assisting our clients to retain staff by creating vibrant and welcoming workplaces. Now it is about re working these spaces to make sure that people feel comfortable coming back.” Alpha’s teams, he says, have been working on open plan office spaces with an increased emphasis on the best use of space – a distinct move away from old style operations involved banks of desks. “I hear lots of people say that productivity isn’t affected by home working, and that’s true. But, in a company like our’s and I suspect many others, the best ideas come from people meeting and collaborating. There are some things you can’t achieve on Teams or Zoom. “So I really do think that there’s an appetite to get back to the office, even if it is for two or three days a week. I think that the vast majority of organisations will be able to move towards hybrid working models. It can be done and it’s definitely nothing to be worried about.”
Like many in business, Paul Black welcomes the success and speed of Northern Ireland’s vaccination programme, another factor which should facilitate a gradual return to workplaces over the coming months. “It’s so important,” he says. “The city has lost its soul and it needs to get it back. It’s been a very sad place to walk around over the past few months.” The question of when city centre offices will start to come alive is a bit more difficult. “I do think that once anyone of any size and scale returns, there will be lot of other following their lead. There are a few significant fit outs going on in Belfast at the moment and, once they’re completed and restrictions allow, there will be an increased appetite to return. “I think we’ll see quite a few people back in by August with another increase in the early autumn,” he predicts. The company has clients as far afield as Australia where workplaces are pretty much back to normal. “We’re hearing that they’re delighted to be back, and that absenteeism is running close to zero.”
Alpha has continued to work throughout the pandemic, even during the early days of the first lockdown. “We were lucky to have a few big contracts which started before the pandemic and continued on. One of those was a major Boeing/MoD contract at the big Lossiemouth base in the very north of Scotland. So we got through the year pretty much unscathed.” Alpha has its main base in Belfast but has an office and factory in Dublin as well as a busy operation in Glasgow and a number of sales executives covering the English market. The group has a total workforce of 92. Travel to and from bases and customer sites hasn’t been easy during the pandemic, but Alpha’s teams have managed to continue to travel when necessary and to maintain a physical presence on site. “I made 47 return trips between here and Glasgow in the year before Covid and precisely none in the last 12 months. So it hasn’t been easy, but it’s a question of adapting. “I do think that there is going to be bounce, a more positive times, coming as we move out of lockdown this time. There will be spin offs all around.”
Paul Black is optimistic on the post-Brexit situation. “Some companies and sectors are clearly having problems, but we’re looking at the positives and I do think there are positives. Northern Ireland has a unique position and we have to exploit that.” But his focus is firmly on workplaces here, in GB and across Ireland, and on how they can be re-engineered to work in the post-Covid era. “It’s about thinking outside the box, or the box at it used to be,” he says. “Communal areas like office cafes are a bit of an issue and need to be re-thought and re-planned. And there are other issues – like common access areas for shared office buildings. But all of the problems areas can be solved. There are lot of solutions. “You can think about increasing the use of all available space, one-way systems, lifts going up and stairs to go down....that kind of thing. Back at the very start, we had a deluge or orders for perspex screens and that kind of solution. Now we’ve moved on from that to planning space effectively.” He’s optimistic about the coming months. “I think we’ll see a big lift, and I’m hoping that it’s a lift that will help create a new normal rather than the current normal...that no one really likes.” “I think that what Covid has shown us is that we’ve been doing a pretty good job creating workplaces for our clients over recent years. Collaborative space, for instance, is now very relevant. Mental wellbeing is a huge issue. Like a lot of others, I found the lockdown from Christmas really hard to accept. It’s been really tough on a lot of people. “Even the prospect of buying a cup of coffee and sitting down in the place you bought it to chat to someone is an exciting one...”