How COVID-19 could change the way we look at offices and workspaces

office space, organisations

COVID-19 has changed the way we work – now more than ever organisations and the people that work for them are reconsidering their approaches to how and when they chose to travel to office spaces

With this shift towards greater integration of remote and agile working solutions comes greater questions about what can be done with office spaces that are now sitting empty.

As 2020 comes to a close and we begin 2021 it is important that we examine the lessons we have learnt during what has been, to put it mildly, an extraordinary tumultuous year. But, while reflection on what has happened is important, it is also vital that we also look to the future. What does the workplace of the future look like? What changes from the past 12 months do we want to grow and expand on?

For many the widespread disruption to our working norms has raised serious questions about the 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 has demonstrated that alternative approaches can and will work when needed, and proven that progressive changes to the way we work can be made.

Already it appears that this shift in attitudes toward more flexible ways of working is not a temporary reaction to the pandemic emergency.

The move towards a more blended model, where workers and employers adopt a mixture of in-office and remote working supported by technology solutions, was already being embraced by some. Now many are predicting that this approach will be embraced on a wider scale once the pandemic crisis has passed. A recent survey by the British Council for Offices (BCO) found that 70% of British workers do not expect or want to return to the traditional five-day, office-based working week. This is matched by another recent survey from the Institute of Directors (IOD) that found that 74% of company directors are planning to integrate more remote and blended ways of working in the future.

With this comes the question: if we are going to use offices less and work remotely more, what happens to those places we used to work in? What do we do with the office spaces we leave behind?

Changing expectations

As remote working become 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.

Office spaces around the country have been left empty for months as a result of the lockdowns caused by the virus, and with the changes and adaptations we have witnessed to the way that people work in response to the situation it is likely that these spaces are going to remain unused for the foreseeable future.

But does it have to be this way? Do these spaces have to remain underused? Empty offices are not just a waste of resources, they represent a missed opportunity to think differently and prepare for change that was emerging even before the pandemic. Not only do oversized and underutilised buildings look and feel like old-fashioned white elephants spread across our towns and cities, they represent a visible symbol that town and city planning norms are increasingly disconnected from what we want and need from the places where we work.

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

Research has shown that those entering the workforce were simply unimpressed by traditional corporate offices, with 21% of 18-24-year-olds reported to have 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 events of the past year have dramatically highlighted the disconnection between our needs and expectations from the places we work and the reality of the office spaces we worked in.

So what is the solution?

Our changing attitudes towards the way we work are reflected in the ways we are now beginning to look at our workspaces. The concept of the office building as a status symbol is increasingly outdated, and 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 becomes more accepted, 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 on a personal level 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 the way that they are operated needs to reflect this.

Why not share?

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. All very practical, and many facilities managers will already be recommending this approach. But this 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 who 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 owns or leases the property.

If wholesale sharing doesn’t appeal, then an organisation could realise its social responsibility in the way it offers the use of 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 workplace 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 prominent address and an organisation’s name written in big letters outside – is becoming increasingly 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 are realising the financial and cultural benefits of breaching the traditional boundaries of office space and joining in with a move towards shared workspace which were previously been 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. When offices and workplaces are able to re-open without the threat of further lockdowns or other preventative measures, collaborative work spaces will be a key focus.

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 for these and other creative solutions.

This approach 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 projects 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

The changing social attitude to the way we intend to work is not 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, facilitating a collaborative, interactive environment for multiple users and organisations.


*Please note: This is a commercial profile

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