Working from home has become widespread as societies worldwide have gone into lockdown to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. But could it be set to displace office working? Such a workplace revolution would be deeply profound. Office buildings from New York’s Empire State, through to London’s The Shard and Kuala Lumpur’s The Patronas Towers, are signature landmarks for their city hosts. But, given the cost of such prestigious addresses, will occupiers be able to justify taking such spaces when they know their businesses can run with teams working remotely?
Technology has now progressed to a level where video conferencing is convenient and relatively reliable. This has been enabled by higher broadband speeds and, with the rollout of superfast fibre networks and 5G, technology is set to get even quicker and support the most data hungry of applications. Combined with ever more capable personal computers and connected devices, there is little in the way of IT tools that can’t be made available at home compared to the office. There is also the benefit of less commuting, both to the commuter in terms of less wasted time and stress and to the environment through lower transport emissions. However, as a compulsory period of working from home has revealed, there is a flip side.
Theoretically there should be fewer distractions working at home compared to an open-plan office. But, as anyone in a cramped flat with young children can attest, this is not necessarily true. Then there is the downside of the lack of psychological and physical separation of work and private life and, for some people, homeworking can be socially isolating.
One of the key ingredients of business success is an environment enabling people to be at their most productive, whether homeworking or working in the office, and this should not be a binary choice. There are times when face-to-face meetings can’t be replaced by virtual versions. Furthermore, and most importantly, the lockdown has shown most people miss the social interactions thrown up by office life. How many great ideas have been inspired from casual conversations by the watercooler or kettle and how many deals or initiatives have stemmed from afterwork social events?
Undoubtedly post covid-19 there will be more homeworking. But there will also be more flexibility in the way we work and the way firms take office accommodation. In the pandemic’s wake, businesses are more likely to want flexible contracts or licences when renting office space, so they can quickly increase or decrease their requirements, rather than be locked in to traditional leases, which usually run for at least three, five or even more years, and have onerous terms if broken. As the pandemic has shown, why would a company commit to a long lease when it’s difficult to predict what will happen in three or six months let alone years?
What is also thrown into sharp relief by the enforced period of homeworking is what we miss from the office. Home has its limits. Homes are private places, designed for family life rather than work. A well-designed office building will have a variety of facilities that support efficient working such as rooms designed for different types of meetings and presentations, breakout areas for informal meetings with colleagues, cafes for more casual chats and private offices.
Which brings us to the next important point. Businesses are likely to be fussier about the quality of their office offering post the pandemic and the flexibility of tenure/occupation. What this means is only offices with excellent facilities, from IT networks, through to meeting rooms and slick and well-managed reception and room booking operations will be top of company wish lists. We might also see companies choosing to invest in a range of smaller, flexible workspaces close to where employees live and take less, higher quality space in expensive, city-centre locations. This will arise from a desire by workers to cut out their commute and increased confidence from managers that working remotely is viable.
To limit the impact of the current and potential pandemics, health will become more important in office design and management. Hot desking may become less popular, cleaning regimes more rigorous, space between desks increased and other design measures introduced such as more automatic doors and wider corridors. Some have even talked about the resurrection of the cube farm, an office layout popular in the 1980s, where individual desks are separated by movable partitions, but this is likely to be a step too far.
The office will survive, and the key will be flexibility – future offices will need to support both flexible ways of working and tenure. Surprisingly, those at the forefront of technology show there is a future for the office. Although they have the ability to get everyone working from home, big tech companies have heavily invested in campus-style real estate. Apple has created an estimated $5 billion HQ in Cupertino, California, and in the UK, Google invested £1 billion to create its campus at King’s Cross in London. One of the main drivers for this is collaboration, an essential way of working for their digital creative workforce, which is hard to achieve if remote working is the only option available. For those about to write the office’s obituary, hold off, as its death is somewhat exaggerated.