The recent lockdown has resulted in a mass shift to remote working with the homes of employees replacing the physical office. However, pre-COVID-19 fixed costs to maintain office spaces remain and continue to impact balance sheets at a time when organizations are assessing their economic forecasts for the year. With lockdown measures easing across the four nations, businesses have started preparing for their return to the office by incorporating recently released ‘COVID-19 secure’ guidelines for a safe and gradual return to workplaces. As employees adjust to the ‘new normal’, businesses will have to carefully plan their return-to-work strategy and desired office functionality.
Recent circumstances have raised questions as to whether COVID-19 will herald the end of the office as we currently know it. While there will be short-to-medium term shifts, many firms will continue to carry on as usual in the long-run. Nonetheless, most businesses will look to reassess their current office space set-up by identifying alternative ways to operate efficiently or even redesigning their workspaces to ensure employee wellbeing and safety.
Pivot to flexible leasing in the short term
In the immediate short-term, serviced offices are likely to be a go-to solution as companies look to both reduce costs and be flexible with space requirements with more employees expected to work remotely. Serviced offices will also likely have the staff and capability to ensure adherence to the UK Government guidelines, removing the burden from the tenant to a certain degree. However, as spatial distancing within the workplace will result in reduced office capacity, serviced office centres could quickly become oversubscribed despite a number of centres operating below full capacity prior to the pandemic.
In the short-to-medium-term, serviced offices could offer that first gradual step back into an office. Companies that are unsure about the shape of their workforce and have imminent lease obligations will no doubt consider this as a prime option. The growing need for flexibility will undoubtedly see landlords roll out more customised products, if not just to retain their existing tenants.
Businesses across sectors and of varied sizes will be considering reducing their office space post the largest ‘work from home’ experiment ever. Yet, many will wish to accommodate a percentage of their workforce in the same sized space, in accordance with social distancing density guidelines, thereby actually requiring additional office space for their workforce. No one solution fits all. Flexible spaces undoubtedly offer agility that is hard to compete with compared with traditional leases. As corporates consider the balance sheet merits of shorter flex licences compared with traditional leases, the latter will become increasingly hard to justify in comparison to the former.
Reimagining office design
Several organisations are being compelled to rethink their office design to ensure adherence to social distancing guidelines coupled with the desire to gain efficiencies from their space. Factoring in growth in remote working policies as well as greater wellbeing elements for staff and visitors, designers are going back to the drawing board to find alternative solutions.
Office design will focus more on employee wellbeing with openable windows, zoned activity areas, safe spaces, and lower energy consumption taking centre stage. Employers will have to phase this redesign to ensure that employees, returning to the workspace after the COVID-19 induced hiatus, adapt quickly.
Many of these principals will also be applied to buildings themselves, especially in the growing number of towers. Moving people efficiently and safely to upper tower floors will prove slower due to elevator capacity. This could prompt businesses to prefer lower floors for greater accessibility. It could also lead to a greater space redesign of future tower schemes.
Assessment of the Return-to-Work strategy
Businesses will have to rigorously think through their future real estate needs while incorporating government guidelines as they plan their phased return of staff. DeVono Cresa is currently assisting a number of businesses via a Return-to-Work Risk Assessment that identifies and mitigates risk, future proofs requirements, while helping businesses move back to the workspace safely. Workplace safety, employee wellbeing and productivity sit at the heart of the debate for what future offices will and should look like.
Despite COVID-19’s expected long-lasting impact on society, we remain resolute in our belief that the office is here to stay, albeit in a different form temporarily. The office has reinvented itself multiple times over generations, and will do so successfully again. Business leaders will further recognise the benefits of flexible offices, and home working will increasingly become a commonplace offering by employers, and requirement by employees. However, humans thrive on personal interaction and miss the experience of face-to-face connection. As the world looks towards a ‘new normal’, the expectations, nature, and design of the office will evolve, but it will continue to remain an integral part of our lives.
Shaun Dawson is the Head of Insights, Shaun provides research and thought leadership to clients doing business in the London market. He provides clients with in-depth perspectives on real estate trends and leading market analyses.