By Philippe Riboton, Managing Director at HR Partners International Executive Search.
Although the headline proclaiming “the end of the office” is eye-catching, most professionals agree that COVID-19 will definitely not kill off the office. On the contrary they predict the “new normal” after the pandemic is over will reinforce the importance of the office. However they also say that the office will serve a completely different purpose and will be entirely revisited in terms of design and space allocation.
Ask real estate professionals and they will all tell you one very simple thing as illustrated by Omar Koleilat, the CEO of Crestyl, a major real estate developer in the Czech Republic: “companies need to create spaces which are employee-friendly so that people will want to come to the office. It’s as simple as that. Therefore we do not only need to revisit office projects differently: we need to increase our investments in employee satisfaction.”
Karel Bor, the general manager of BNP Paribas Real Estate for the Czech Republic and Slovakia, agrees: “COVID-19 does not modify the trend but it comes as an acceleration of change. It is a positive shift and it shows the office of the future will be a combination of things, including entertainment, coffee places, restaurants and fitness centers for example, offering multiple places where people will be able to work differently and entertain themselves.”
Everybody agrees flexibility is the new standard of office development. Companies need to adapt their offices to the general trend of “hybrid working” or “work from anywhere”, resulting in a downsizing of office space for most companies, especially in cities with expensive real estate footprints.
Glyn Evans, Head of Design and Build for Central and Eastern Europe with the real estate advisory firm Cushman & Wakefield, shows the way: “all we do”, he says, “is make office design more flexible. The general trend is to move towards open flexible areas, have as many movable fittings as possible (phone booths, acoustic booths etc …) in order to help companies move everything rather than have built-in spaces. It’s all about having the ability to react to change.”
Jana Vlkova, Director of Workplace Advisory with real estate consultants Colliers International in Prague, concurs: “the office of the future will be made of a lot of flexible furniture and flexible equipment. There will be many more meeting rooms spread in many more areas designed in such a way that companies will be able to move them around.”
A major factor of change is of course the future occupancy of offices as a consequence of hybrid working or homeworking. In other words employees won’t be fixed to a working desk anymore: they will rotate on the same desk. “Companies realize offices should not be thought of anymore with a one-to-one desk/employee ratio”, Glyn Evans illustrates. “One year ago it was considered drastic to think of an 80% ratio: now I would say the drastic representation would rather be around 50%”.
“We started working on “intelligent buildings” a few years ago already”, states Milos Halecka, Innovations Director at MiddleCap Partners, a Bratislava based private equity group. “At the time it was not so clear why we were doing it, except because of the technology hype. Now we know: COVID-19 and its implications are boosting the necessity for developers to measure everything in their buildings and deliver the maximum amount of data for their clients so that they can operate with the highest level of security but also flexibility.”
The ability to measure the usage of space – such as room density – is only one example of the necessity to comply with social distancing rules. But there are plenty of other areas where new technologies will change the life in the office, air quality being on top of that list. COVID-19 has generated the imperative to reconsider how air circulates in a building, generate air quality data but also answer the question about how to bring fresh air from the outside through new ventilation systems.
So how will we work in the office of the future? Milos Halecka gives us a hint: “I believe people in the near future will have a company app on their mobile phone which will serve as a guide to work in their office building and will supply them all possible information: occupancy of the building, density of working areas, availability of collaborative spaces or meeting rooms, air quality etc …” he says. “The smartphone will become an access card to a building or to the lifts and of course to the working or collaborative areas – but it will also help to communicate with the building and inside the building. This will be very similar to technologies which are already in use in private homes where you can remotely turn on and off any functionality of your home: lighting, alarms, heating or else …” Not to mention that features such as thermal scanners, plexiglass dividers and one-way hallways might be part of the workplace – even in a post-vaccine world.
All real estate professionals I spoke to agree: the office of the future will be dramatically different. “The purpose of the office will be physical informal and formal meetings and collaboration in order to boost creativity and brainstorming”, says Jana Vlkova. This will translate in a structural shift between working areas and collaborative areas. “Five to ten years ago”, Jana says, “companies were designing their office so that 80% of the space was designated for working areas and 20% was allocated to support space (conference rooms etc …). The shift is so important that in the near future we expect that 40 to 50% of office space will be designated for collaborative areas and 50 to 60% will be allocated to working areas”, she says.
Those are a few aspects of the shifts which will have a major impact not only on office design but also on office locations. Some experts even suggest that the centralization of offices may disappear to some extent. Companies will be tempted to have several locations instead of a central one in large metropolitan areas in order to allow employees to cut down on commuting time and accommodate office solutions closer to their home – from where they will also work part of the time.
Post-COVID, we know that very little about our current office life – its uses, its physical layout or even its location – will remain the same. As the pandemic continues we are witnessing nothing less than a revolution in progress.