Alison White, Founder & Director of White Workplace Consultancy Limited, examines how COVID-19 has changed the way we work & what we want from future workplaces

COVID-19 has changed the way we work and the potential of future workplaces. Recent studies have highlighted that hybrid working is well established and on average people are in the office for less than 1.5 days per week.

Now more than ever, organisations and the people that work for them are reconsidering their approach to how and when they chose to travel to office spaces. With this shift towards greater integration of hybrid style working, come greater questions about what can be done with office spaces that are now sitting empty for much of the working week.

We are more than mid-way through 2022 and for most of us, post-pandemic life has become a new normal. But before memories fade, perhaps we should examine the lessons learnt during what has been an extraordinary and tumultuous two or three years, look to the future and put in place the changes needed now to establish a roadmap that delivers workplaces that are fit for the future.

For many, the widespread disruption to our working norms raised serious questions about the pre-pandemic status quo. Despite the assertion by some that a return to ‘business as usual’ was important for our recovery, the virus and our response to it have demonstrated that progressive changes to the way we work and future workplaces are not only possible but indeed are demanded.

Already, it appears that a shift in attitudes toward more flexible ways of working was not a temporary reaction to the pandemic emergency but an opportunity to embrace a change that was previously available only to some and not an option for the majority.

The move towards a more blended model, where workers and employers adopt a mixture of in-office and remote working supported by technology solutions and enhanced skills, has highlighted what has been missing for a very long time – flexibility and trust to balance work and life.

Predictions by the British Council of Offices and Institute of Directors that this approach would be embraced on a wider scale once the pandemic crisis passed were treated with scepticism by some but have proved to be accurate. A survey of 50,000 workers in June and July 2022 highlighted that, on average, people were going into the office less than 1.5 days per week and no surprise here, Fridays are the quietest day, and mid-week is the busiest.

As employers are paying for space and services that are clearly sitting empty for large amounts of time, the question is how long will they carry on funding that uneconomic overhead?

Remote working: Changing expectations

As remote working becomes more commonplace, buildings that are grossly underused – if not empty – for days at a time will become more widespread. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, the cost of underutilised and empty office space in London alone was estimated to be £4 billion annually.

Empty offices are not just a waste of resources, they represent a missed opportunity to think differently and prepare for the change that was emerging even before the pandemic started. Not only do oversized and underutilised buildings look and feel like old-fashioned white elephants spread across our towns and cities, but they also represent a visible symbol that town and city planning norms are now disconnected from what we want as places to work.

“COVID-19 has changed the way we work and the potential of future workplaces. Recent studies have highlighted that hybrid working is well established, and on average, people are in the office for less than 1.5 days per week.”

Even before the pandemic, the message was becoming strikingly clear: size no longer means status, and a traditional approach to office planning and design offered limited attraction to younger generations.

Research showed that those entering the workforce were simply unimpressed by traditional corporate offices, with 21% of 18-24-year-olds reported having turned down job offers due to the potential employer’s outdated office design and a lack of amenities. Those views were expanding across multi-generations fed up with out-of-date management by presenteeism.

The COVID pandemic dramatically highlighted the disconnect between our needs and expectations of the places where we wanted to work and the reality of the office spaces we actually worked in.

Our workspaces: What is the solution?

Our changing attitudes towards how we work are reflected in how we are now beginning to look at our future workplaces. The concept of the office building as a status symbol is increasingly outdated. For many of us, it is simply irrelevant whether the place that we work in is the biggest or casts a larger shadow than our sector competitors.

As working remotely has become the norm for many, we are looking for something different as a workplace. We are looking for somewhere that meets our needs for flexibility and choice. We are looking for somewhere that suits us personally and provides a more inspiring atmosphere for approaching our work creatively and collaboratively.

This kind of cultural shift changes our demands for how office buildings should be designed and integrated into the communities where we want to live, shop, learn and enjoy our free time.

Why not share office spaces?

The immediate and obvious solution to managing unused office space isn’t dramatic or complicated.

Shutting down parts of a building on days when occupancy is predictably low and consolidating occupiers into a smaller footprint could reduce tangible running costs and have an unexpected cultural benefit by bringing together people who would never ordinarily interact.

This is all very practical, and many facilities managers will already be recommending such an approach. But this approach fails to address the principal issue of what to actually do with growing amounts of empty or underutilised office spaces.

An alternative would be to share the use of the building. As offices become more adaptable and agile, why not offer access to another organisation – one that would make good use of it – during your downtime? As spaces become more adaptable and businesses move away from the idea of individuals ‘owning’ a specific place in the office, the potential to share space with other organisations becomes more viable.

The ‘plug and play nature of agile offices means that they can be used by anyone, and this can include those outside the organisation that actually own or lease the property.

If wholesale sharing doesn’t appeal, then an organisation could realise its social responsibility in how it uses its space during low utilisation periods. Many people and organisations need a place to work but do not require – or cannot afford – the traditional commitment to full-time, seven-day leases.

Having access to space on an ad-hoc basis might appeal to them while bringing long-term business benefits to the host organisation.

What about collocating?

With increased levels of distributed working, the established perception of the city centre head office is changing. In place of the assumption that the headquarters and centralised workplaces are one and the same, a new leaner model is emerging. What we define as a ‘workplace’ is now anywhere we want to work, therefore, what organisations regard as their HQ presence is changing.

The traditional idea of a head office – complete with a prominent address and an organisation’s name written in big letters outside – is already outdated and no longer central to the requirements of the post-COVID working world. In its place is a demand for new, fresher and more economically efficient solutions to support the increased integration of hybrid working.

Even mature organisations realise the financial and cultural benefits of breaching the traditional boundaries of office space and joining in with a move towards shared workspace, which was previously regarded as only relevant to the start-up sector. Indeed, by reducing the scale of ‘owned’ space and having access to shared facilities, collocating with like-minded organisations seeking a more modern approach can enhance an organisation’s brand value.

“The COVID pandemic dramatically highlighted the disconnect between our needs and expectations of the places where we wanted to work and the reality of the office spaces we actually worked in.”

When offices and workplaces were able to reopen it became clear that when people did come to the office, it was primarily to meet others, often for social activities and interactions and rarely for formal meetings (the Zoom meetings have resolved that). So collaborative spaces became increasingly valuable and important.

The trend towards spaces where the free sharing of ideas is encouraged was growing before COVID-19, and the workplace of the future will need to respond to the acceleration of demand with creative solutions.

Relaxing organisational boundaries has further benefits. Fostering free interaction across organisational boundaries provides an environment where ideas that may not have been possible inside a traditional office building can be created.

A casual conversation in the communal café could solve a problem that someone has been stuck on all morning, or a passing greeting in a corridor might help form connections that could assist with future project opportunities. Taking this approach would create a dynamic culture that attracts people in from the home offices and could aid recruitment – something many businesses struggle to achieve.

Brand benefits

It’s clear that the social attitude to the way we want to work was not just a blip or a temporary anomaly – it is here to stay. These changes need to be led by those who plan, develop, design, and operate workplaces. Developers, planning authorities and policymakers need to appreciate and embrace the scale and pace of change in what we now expect from where and when we work. Space no longer needs to sit empty when alternatives are available.

Businesses, in turn, need to adapt their approach to the way they view the ownership of building and space, moving towards a more open brand, and facilitating a collaborative, interactive environment for multiple users and organisations.

Please Note: This is a Commercial Profile

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