The office is dead, long live the office

BEFORE 2020, urban planners were already re-visioning the place and nature of commercial space in city centres. Now, with Covid seemingly here to stay, the imperative to create, or re-create, office space for a healthy, happy workforce, and a profitable, growing business, has never been greater.

And, with the ‘work from home if you can’ message still in place, it would be understandable if some thought ‘the office is dead’.

This is emphatically not so, according to the latest London Office Crane Survey by Deloitte, which reported that “the volume of new starts increased by 10 per cent from the previous survey in May 2021 to 3.4million sq ft between April and September 2021”

Mike Cracknell, director in real estate at Deloitte, said: “There have been high levels of speculative development (85 per cent of new starts) – above the survey’s long-term average, reflecting developers’ ability to ‘look through the short-term effects of the pandemic to a future where occupancy and demand will rebound, even if working patterns and office configurations change. More than a third (37 per cent) of developers predict home working will have no impact on leasing demand.”

It’s not yet clear what the position is in Belfast currently, but experience shows that our market trends often mirror those in Britain, and I would be confident in predicting that the office is far from dead, just in need of some reconfiguring.

Our economy cannot sustain long-term working from home and, while there are some people and some business sectors that can adapt positively to home working, many people and more businesses experience the real need to return to collective working. For employees, this is often about mental health, motivation and engagement. For employers, it’s about leadership, ethos, management and, yes, profitability.

There are benefits to working from home and it has achieved something of a fad status, but fads wear thin and fade away. The rises in productivity witnessed in the first months of home working during the pandemic have plateaued and, in some cases dropped below pre-Covid levels.

I have talked with clients directly about the home working issue and, universally, they report that initial rises in productivity have fallen away. It would certainly be bad for Northern Ireland PLC if we accepted such declines as inevitable.

Clients have related problems with phased work returns but those who reopened their office based on full staff attendance are beginning to see productivity rise again. Crucially, companies are facing recruitment difficulties. This is especially true of sectors (for example, high tech) that often attract young people with a thirst for exciting work and international travel.

So how do we reshape office working to fit the requirements of Covid, sustainability, productivity, profitability and a healthy, happy workforce?

What is certain is that employers can no longer put staff into large rooms filled with desks: cheek by jowl working is unlikely to return. This is not just because Covid appears to be here to stay, necessitating some levels of ongoing social distancing, but also because workers have got used to having space and an element of privacy, and freedom, to work during their months at home.

New interior office spaces are likely to feature a very different positioning of desks, massively increased break-out spaces where more people can meet safely in a bigger space and we have also noticed a small increase in individual offices, both for senior staff and for internal small-scale meetings.

The approach taken by Google as much as 20 years ago, with moveable interior walls, ‘third spaces’ (casual seating areas), various zany features like putting greens and revolving bookcases may have seemed, well ‘zany’ but these are concepts that are taking traction in current office design thinking. The key concept behind this type of space is flexibility, freedom to work as your desk and away from it and a design that encourages staff interaction both within and between teams.

Practical matters have also taken on increased importance. The increased need for physical space means that heating and ventilation are vital. It is simply not cost-effective to blast heat into a space where every window is open. Likewise, with more open space and freedom of movement, noise levels will increase, so office designers will need to factor acoustics into their design and material choices.

Toilet and washroom facilities will also need to be reviewed. Staff should not have to join queues to use the bathroom, so the number and design of washrooms will need to reflect the needs of the changing world we live in.

There is much to think about in redesigning office space for the 2020s and, without doubt, creating a happy office where great things happen will require financial investment, in your space and, inherently, in your people.

But it is clear to us all now that the office interiors of the twentieth century have failed to deliver to the new needs we now face.

As Henry Ford said: “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” Doing just that will create a happier, more productive workforce and stronger, better business.

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