So, we ask the question: are the days of the big, spacious, costly office numbered – if not in some cases, already past?
Flexibility generates efficiency
For many people, the flexibility that working from home provides has always been an ideal. Even before the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, some businesses were already enabling staff in many sectors to work from home at least a couple of days a week, and this combination of being based partly at home, partly in an office, can work very well indeed.
The argument against home working usually centres on productivity and time management. Senior management often find it easier to manage their staff with face-to-face interaction and meetings. They find the remoteness and logistics of home working difficult to deal with. But with the widespread adoption of online communication tools, such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, they have been able to arrange and host meetings taking place remotely with reasonably large groups of people. This assurance has allowed some sectors to flourish in difficult circumstances.
Working from home isn’t for everyone of course. There are mental health issues around working from home and many staff enjoy the interaction of office life. Not everyone has large extended families, or even co-habitants, and for them home working will be a diversion they will be glad to see end.
Smaller offices may initially be an answer to part of the business community’s dilemma. If staff are adhering to a rota system (of when they’re working from home and when they are in the office), less capacity is required at any one time. There is also the option that if people can comfortably work from home, they can widen the geographic search of the area they work in. A commute and an overnight stay once a week, with the rest of time working from home, is eminently more achievable than a lengthy, daily five-day commute.
One area some councils were already exploring before the pandemic, was the deployment of offices and other civic buildings as ‘creative hubs’. These are smaller places where people can meet and work, where creativity, best practice and ideas can be shared, without the need for an ongoing costly rental of an entire building. Again, they needn’t be in the proximity of the main office, but nearer where their staff live. This could potentially mean more business traffic and footfall in areas that are smaller towns or suburban, rather than city centres or out-of-town business parks, helping to support local communities.
Office spaces of the future
When new office buildings are designed in the future, it is reasonable to presume that more space will be needed to allow more physical room between desks and workspaces. Gone are the days of desks packed side-by-side, and crowded communal spaces. We won’t be going back to that ‘old normal’.
Many city centre offices, with their costly rents, might be repurposed as accommodation – either as residential or city hotel or holiday rental. If WFH continues in the long-term, this may also have a residual effect of home office spaces needing to be larger, perhaps to accommodate a decent-sized desk space and printer, for example. These will need to be designed into the homes of the future. There will also need to be more power points for example, or USB and other charging points, incorporated into future house designs.
The shape of office space, indeed office working, in the future is still unknown. But the ways businesses are already adapting and implementing new procedures are sure signs that the old way of using office buildings has been unexpectedly and quietly consigned to the past.