Temporary changes in the pandemic are now leading to a permanent rethinking of work patterns, reports Nicol Dynes.
Offices are back, but there will be no return to the past. They will become more flexible and people-centric.
“The pandemic has accelerated the use of technology, which means that people now have a choice between working from home or going to the office, just like they have a choice between ordering online or going to a store,” says Nick Axford, principal and global director of research at Avison Young.
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“There’s overwhelming evidence that people want and need some time in the office, but how much time really depends on the quality of the office,” he says. “If employers provide the right environment, then people will want to go back to the office.”
The details of the right environment depend on the organisation and the location, but the general principles are universal: environmentally sustainable buildings, healthy spaces, flexibility, good transport links, proximity to services and amenities, and a connection to the local community.
‘People want to go back’
“We have proved that we can work outside of the office, but there’s a real sense that people want to go back to meet people and collaborate,” says Danya Pollard, head of capital solutions at Cromwell Property Group. “Hybrid working presents challenges and opportunities, but it promotes a better work/life balance.”
The temporary changes the pandemic brought about can lead to a permanent and positive rethinking of work patterns and the role of the office.
“The work-life balance has been talked about for a long time, but now it is happening in practice,” says Karolina Sulma, director of the legal department at Skanska Office Development CEE.
‘London and New York will not become deserts. They could strengthen. If people only commute two or three days a week, they will do so more happily.’
Nick Axford, Avison Young
“Flexibility is clearly something both employees and employers want, and the need for collaboration in the office must be kept in mind when designing the space.”
Flexibility refers to flexispace, offices that can be adapted to provide meeting rooms and collaboration spaces, but also flexitime, giving employees the choice to work from home at least some of the time.
“The idea of the office as collaboration city is not very realistic,” says Axford. “There is too much focus on amenities at the moment. People still need places for quiet, focused work without distractions. Employers need to provide both.”
Context and connectivity
The success of tomorrow’s office will not depend on location, but rather on context and connectivity.
“The community vibe will become more important, because no one wants soulless offices,” says Sulma. “Do not expect a flight from central business districts, because they are good for employers for image and PR purposes, but also for employees, who like to be in a vibrant neighbourhood.”
There has been a lot of focus on improving the quality of offices, which have to be more sustainable, more pleasant and healthier places to work, but the context of the office is equally important.
“It is not just about the office, but the community and the environment, the availability of retail, restaurants and amenities,” says Pollard.
“There’s a vibe in city centres that suburban offices don’t offer. It is easier to have a social life after work and to connect with other people. A lot of social capital is built up if you can just go and grab a coffee with someone.”
‘The work-life balance has been talked about for a long time, but now it is happening in practice.’
Karolina Sulma, Skanska Office Development CEE
The pandemic has proved that people can work from home, but it has also highlighted the importance of human connections and interactions.
“Places with a good mix are seeing rental growth because people like being in those environments,” says Axford. “London and New York will not become deserts. These markets will not weaken. In fact, they could strengthen, because if people only commute two or three days a week, they will do so more happily.”
As things return to normal after the pandemic, some changes brought about by Covid-19 will disappear, but some will become permanent.
Performance over presence
“One positive change is that performance will continue to be more important than presence,” continues Axford. “Physical presence in the office will matter less than the work you actually do.”
The adaptability shown by everyone during the pandemic will endure and the demand for flexibility will be non-negotiable. “There is no going back,” says Sulma. “These tech-enabled changes will stay with us.”
Reliance on technology is another enduring aspect, even if most people now have ‘Zoom fatigue’. Every business will choose what works best for its employees.
“There will be a data-driven focus on what makes the office work for your particular organisation, needs and people,” says Axford. “There will be no more of the cookie-cutter approaches that we have seen too much of recently.”