At the end of February I stood in a meeting room in the City looking into a nearby office block. Rows of workers sat staring silently at computer screens. I thought: “Why bother travelling for an hour to not talk to colleagues and stare at a PC screen? Couldn’t you just do that at home?”
Scroll forward a few months and I’m not the only one questioning the long-term utility of the office. The pandemic means most professional service personnel are working from home and it looks unlikely any will be soon returning to the shiny skyscrapers.
The results of a survey carried out by the Rewards & Employee Benefits Association showed only 5% would be encouraging as many staff back to work as possible. The majority – 54% – will actively encourage people to work from home and 35% will leave it up to staff to decide. The remaining 6% have closed their offices for the rest of the year.
With working from home set to continue for many more months, it’s unclear how willing people will be to return to their old habit of commuting into city centres.
According to a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 66 days on average to establish a new habit. In other words, the many months of lockdown will be plenty of time for people to establish the techniques needed to work well from home, such as making a routine, planning your day and building a home workspace.
While some might still hanker for the routine of the daily commute, interaction with colleagues and being able to buy rather than make lunch, others will prefer the time freed up from not commuting, the avoidance of small talk and making rather than buying lunch every day.
My hunch is there will be many in the latter camp. In an effort to reduce expensive office space, companies had reduced work spaces, made offices open-plan and introduced hot desking. These have all conspired to turn the office into a noisy and discombobulating space.
Routine and quiet are more productive than noise and discombobulation. Doing your job at home gets us away from the hell that is hot desking – your workspace is once again your own, to be as messy or as tidy as you please.
Rather than introducing a radical change, the pandemic has instead turbo-charged an existing trend. Working from home a day or two was becoming normal practice. Post-crisis longer periods of working from home are more likely to become standard.
Once people have worked from home for long periods of time, it will be impossible – and bad business practice – to force employees back into older working patterns.
This is going to create significant challenges for both companies and pension schemes. What are companies going to do with those leased buildings? And will institutional investors have to rethink their property portfolios if demand for central city office space tumbles?
Intelligent office design
While demand for traditional offices is likely to fall, these buildings will still have a purpose to serve. As all those who have grown weary of endless videos conference know, nothing can replace being in the same room as other human beings.
It is hard, for example, to form a bond with a potential client unless you meet face-to-face. Events are much better done in the flesh than by webinar. And sometimes teams need to be together to get things done quickly.
The design of office space needs to meet these changing demands. Maybe it can become more like Johnson & Johnson’s new office in Bogotá, Colombia, which divided its spaces into “open collaborative” and “open focus”, along with “privacy areas” and “team dens” for different types of work.
This would allow people to come to the office for the day to work collaboratively with their teams, retire to quiet area to do some work and go to a meeting room to greet a new client.
Even with such retooling of work spaces, it is likely there will be lower demand for offices for these buildings then there was in the past. Some of these buildings could be converted into apartments.
If people will be working from home more frequently then new apartments will need to cater for this change – space for an office will be needed. Three people living in a shared flat will need more than a kitchen table.
Employers, staff, investors and managers of properties should discussing what type of office space will be needed once going back to work becomes a viable option. Ignoring the change Covid-19 will bring will result in empty buildings and underwater investment portfolios.