As we approach the end of the year, a second wave of rising cases of COVID-19 globally has once again raised the question about the future of the office. For a large number of us, it has brought many of the challenges of remote working to the fore, from ill-equipped home offices, sluggish WiFi, seemingly never-ending distractions, and declining productivity. To cap it off, mental wellbeing among workers has started to radically deteriorate, with reports of loneliness, anxiety and stress climbing at an alarming rate.
For those questioning the value of the office post-pandemic, these challenges should come as a warning shot. Put simply, the office is too fundamental to be lost entirely. There is no doubt, however, that the office as we know it must adapt for the post-COVID era, catering to new health requirements and working norms, and the beginnings of these changes and an increasingly hybrid model for a more footloose workforce are already underway.
A growing demand for flexibility has seen struggling retailers open up to workers, while a preference for shiny city-center high-rise HQs is rapidly being replaced by a revival of the regional business park, giving teams the option to work closer to home. The office infrastructure itself is changing, evolving to suit a function more like that of a data center as it caters to a more disparate and tech-savvy workforce. So, the office isn’t dead, but it is certainly different, and the workplace providers of the future will have to adapt accordingly to survive.
Retail meets workspace
The severe effects of COVID-19 have been felt intensely across the retail sector, with ailing retailers reporting slowing sales, declining footfall forcing many to navigating the challenges of store closures and vacancy. As a result, landlords with void or surplus space are looking to build resilience into their portfolio by embracing “space as a service” and tapping into growing demand for flexible workspace.
For footloose and cost-conscious workers and businesses, this is good news. Not only does flexible or co-working space at the local high street or retail centre provide a perfect solution to workers wanting flexible access to office space to focus and escape the distractions of home, but it also comes at a fraction of the cost of the traditional HQs. For entrepreneurs, small businesses and even large corporates, allowing team members the ability to access focused workspace on a flexible basis will be vital in the months to come as reopening of many office blocks remains uncertain.
For retailers themselves, the ability to offer this space for workers provides a valuable means to “close the gap” on void space in a pressured and financially uncertain environment. Moreover, by introducing workspaces to attract increased footfall, this shift could play a vital role in regenerating retail spaces, malls, and other commercial hubs that have suffered during COVID-19.
Revival of the regional business park
With reports of house purchases and inquiries in regional and out of town locations booming as remote and flexible working patterns look set to persist for the long term, it should come as no surprise that offices will have to adapt too. In fact, reports show that American workers have saved over 9 billion hours by not commuting during the pandemic, a saving that many have come to appreciate and prioritize in recent months.
As a result, out of town business parks and regional offices are seeing demand for space increase exponentially, as workers and businesses seek out the benefits of office space without the commute. Moreover, as businesses grapple with social distancing measures and the logistical challenge of crowded, city center HQs, a network of regional office spaces provides the perfect solution.
In fact, a phenomenon of the 1950s, out of town business parks are not only particularly well-suited to new worker preferences for office following long term remote working, they are perfectly placed to cater to the new demands of office space in the wake of COVID-19. This includes larger spaces to accommodate social distancing, parking to help avoid crowded public transport, and amenity-rich locations for busy workers keen to limit travel and contact as the pandemic persists.
There can be no doubt that while the importance of the office will endure, remote working will continue to some extent. Teams will continue to be dispersed as the emphasis moves away from HQs to regional or local satellite spaces. As a result, the function of the office will have to evolve from simply housing employees, to catering to the new digital demands of a COVID-era workforce.
Offices will have to adapt to act more as miniature datacentres or digital nuclei, supporting a network of tenants to stay connected, through more sophisticated, robust, and advanced technological infrastructure. Office will need to focus on the “ancillary” services they provide to cater to increased demand for remote network access. This is no easy task as it means that offices must keep now ensure they are protecting their clients’ digital security and complying with the robust standards required by data-protection laws.
COVID-19 has accelerated this evolving role for the office, but this trend was underway even before the pandemic. In fact, 72 percent of commercial tenants reportedly claim that unconnected spaces will become obsolete in the near future. As a result, offices will have to modernize to be fit for a post-COVID-19 workforce.
The pandemic has created new challenges for office providers, retailers, landlords, and workers alike. Though uncertainty will no doubt persist as the pandemic continues, it is critical not to lose sight of the importance of the office for worker wellbeing, motivation, and productivity. The office as we once knew it may be gone, but the post-pandemic office will need to take its place. As workers and businesses adopt a more hybrid approach to working, access to flexible, accessible and tech-powered spaces will be vital and will be defining features of how we work in the years to come and long after this pandemic has passed.