Guest view: Say goodbye to analog offices

By Faisal Butt, Founder & CEO, Pi Labs

Before the current pandemic forced most of the world into its largest-ever remote working experiment, many landlords, developers and businesses were starting to look at the role of the office.

Wellbeing, sustainability, mental health and space-as-a-service were the topics starting to emerge at the forefront of the conversation. In fact, the option to work remotely or more flexibly was already being used as an incentive to attract top talent.

Faisal Butt, Founder & CEO, Pi Labs

This makes sense given that the number of workers in the UK spending more than two hours commuting increased by 72% between 2005-2015 and the current average one-way commute for City workers in London is 74 minutes. This is not only time inefficient and environmentally damaging but can’t possibly be good for one’s mental health. Having had my fair share of morning commutes on overcrowded train cabins into London, I can very much relate. 

A study by the Office for National Statistics found that commuters are more likely to be anxious, dissatisfied and feel that their daily activities lack meaning compared with those who don’t have to travel to work. This is the case even when they are paid more. 

I will never forget the moment when a Founder we were looking to invest in, when asked what her long-term motivations were, answered ‘to never have to experience the drudgery of daily commutes on public transport again’.

Attractive and safe environment

As things slowly get back to normal, landlords and owners are going to have to create an attractive and safe environment to bring people back into the office. Research by the Harvard Business Review found that businesses that heavily invest in employee experience are 11.5 times more likely to appear on employer review site Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work List.

I am not surprised that our portfolio company 720 degrees is seeing a surge in demand during the pandemic, as their wellbeing analytics platform provides office landlords and corporates with a view of how conducive their office space is to workers’ mental health and wellbeing.   

During the lockdown, homes became workspaces, gyms, yoga studios, Zoom social venues, and even schools and nurseries. Why is all this important? Because the social understanding of being “at work” has fundamentally shifted. Now, with a sharper focus on health and mental wellbeing, incorporating these benefits in an immediate working environment is rewriting the rulebook for commercial spaces.

We predict that COVID-19 will be a catalyst bringing wellbeing to the head of the conversation, making it an important tool for winning and retaining top talent, as well as becoming a strategic advantage for landlords looking to rent their space.

As companies compete against each other in the war for talent, it is their forward-looking office strategies that will play an important factor in their success. The same principle applies higher up the value chain – landlords competing for tenants have an advantage if their space is accretive to worker wellbeing.

Photo by Corey Agopian on Unsplash

People will have very high expectations of the office when we return, and this is where the challenge lies. It must be worth it for us to get back on jam-packed trains, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with complete strangers (and potentially risking our lives) during our morning and evening commutes. I would go so far as to say offices need to offer something special that gets us excited when we wake up in the morning; otherwise, we may as well continue as we are – rotating from dining room to bedroom in makeshift home offices. 

More mixed-use features

Commercial spaces will need to include more mixed-use features that improve the quality of social interactions through leisure facilities, services offering solutions for stress-related issues and world-class technological connectivity. Yoga and meditation rooms, today a fringe idea, may well become mainstream. 

There is a growing awareness among property developers and owners that remaining competitive means creating spaces that are both environmentally friendly and conducive to tenant and worker wellbeing. Features such as digital technologies that enhance the experience of end-users, were once seen as a ‘nice to have’ but will become an essential part of an office owners’ playbook to attract and retain the best tenants.

Not everyone agrees with this vision of the future of work. There are traditional landlords fixated on the central principles of location, rental yield, lease length, and covenant strength – the core economic principles of the office sector. 

We don’t argue with this economic formula, but something is changing on the fringes. And sometimes, fringe concepts have a knack for making their way into the core of things. While it remains difficult to predict what the office space of the future may look like, we can be rest assured that it certainly won’t be an analog stack of floors for companies to cram in their employees between nine and six.