Words by Katie Puckett
COVID-19 has focused minds on exactly what the office is for and how central a role it should play in corporate strategies and budgets, as well as making the strengths and limitations of home set-ups all too apparent.
Over the last few weeks, WSP has been considering what the future holds for the buildings where so many of us used to spend so much of our waking hours. From a human point of view, we’ve already explored how we’ll feel about going back to the office and how we might behave differently when we get there. From an engineering point of view, we’ve looked at whether we can virus-proof the office and improve resilience in this and future pandemics. Both of these have implications for how much space organizations might need or want in future, how much that space costs to fit out and operate, and ultimately how much occupiers can, or choose to, afford.
This article is about those decisions: how is demand for office space likely to change as a result of COVID-19?
Why do we need offices? Hasn’t lockdown proved that we can work just as well remotely?
To the surprise of many, COVID-19 has indeed demonstrated that a considerable amount of the work that usually takes place in offices can carry on when they are closed. Some have discovered that they can be more productive at home, and enjoy the freedom of a more relaxed schedule. Few openly mourn their morning commute.
But if COVID-19 has accelerated the trend for home working, it has also revealed its limitations – in a knowledge economy, an organization’s success will still depend on face-to-face interaction, collaboration and serendipity. With universal flexible working, the office could become a vital anchor. “When you’re trying to attract, retain and nurture top talent, the workplace plays a really significant part in how people perceive a business,” says Michael Holloway, general manager of property investment at Kiwi Property, one of New Zealand’s largest real estate firms. “Rather than doing a job interview on a videoconference, you want to go into their space and see how they value other members of staff.”
The office has an arguably even more important role in providing learning opportunities for younger employees, says Jim Coleman, head of economics at WSP in London. “A lot of developing people is not formal training, it’s all the other interactions. There’s still a lot to be gained from being together as a team.” This will apply differently across demographics – with a tension between younger employees’ need for training and senior employees’ greater motivation to work from home. “For people at the start of their careers, there’s probably more desire to be with other people because you’re still learning and you want the experience and the social life that goes with it. Whereas as you get older and you may have settled down and have children, it’s much easier to work from home.”
A greater amount of home working will persist: for the sake of resilience as much as anything else. “The next time a coronavirus comes along, we know we need to move quickly to this model, which means that it has to be in play – at least in part – most of the time,” says Coleman. “I don’t think any business will want to go back to the way things were done, so that has an immediate implication for space.”
"I don’t think any business will want to go back to the way things were done"Jim Coleman, head of economics, WSP
"Companies could see this as an opportunity to downsize, to reduce operating costs and invest more in technology"Paul Stapley, vice president, WSP
What kind of office space will organizations want?
Companies will now be well aware that they could make do with less office space. But they may also have realized that they also need better, more resilient office space. “This crisis is probably going to accelerate the need for modern, flexible office space with lots of services,” says Meyer. “The buildings that suffer will be the older ones that tenants just don’t want any more. They’re just the wrong product.”
Landlords will have to differentiate themselves with added services: “You might call it ‘high-end’, not from a luxury perspective but from a content perspective – you won’t just lease a ‘stupid’ space, you need to fill it with services to help the tenant be more productive, whether that is sustainability or wellness solutions or digital technology.”
To justify its existence, the office will have to become a destination with a purpose, says David Gooderham, global account director with WSP in London. “If people continue to be the driver for change, as the most important component of an organization’s profitability, businesses will have to provide safe working environments that increase the feelgood factor and ultimately raise productivity and creativity. There’s much that we can learn from this lockdown period to make the workplace better and our interactions with it more effective.”
Holloway thinks the “hotelization” of office space will continue, with workplaces importing some of the home comforts that we’ve become used to. This might mean more relaxed dress codes, but also real planting and soft furnishings, to make spaces more cosy while helping to subtly create distance between people. “We need to think about furniture and other design solutions to create separation without losing the benefits of collaboration. If offices have a future, people need to feel safe in them.”
Coworking spaces have been leaders in the field of hotelization, and are perhaps the ultimate destination offices. But COVID-19 has left tumbleweed blowing through these buzzy, high-density communities. We’ve considered whether this will be the death of the coworking space in a separate article.
"To justify its existence, the office will have to become a destination with a purpose"David Gooderham, global account director, WSP
"Companies are going to be thinking about how they could make their workforce if not pandemic-proof, at least pandemic-resistant"Professor Bill Kerr, Harvard Business School
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