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For Offices Operating in Uncertain Times, the Future is Flexible

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As of December 2020 it might be hard to remember what our work lives were like before everything changed with the arrival of COVID-19 early in the year. But looking back to the “days before”, it’s interesting to note that some of the trends the coronavirus has magnified were there before any of us were aware of COVID-19. Online shopping was already on the rise, for one thing, and so were at-home activities like meal kits and Zoom events.

The most impactful pre-existing trend that the coronavirus has amplified is the need for workplaces to deliver high-quality flexible working solutions to their employees. Before COVID-19 many businesses were already moving toward a hub and spoke model of office space, where a central HQ building is used for larger meetings, but most employees have the opportunity to work from home or from a regional satellite office on a routine basis. According to data from CBRE, before COVID-19 a sizable minority of workers, 37 percent, wanted flexible work options. But now that many workers understand the risks of COVID-19 and have seen the benefits of remote work firsthand, that figure is up to 56 percent. 

Part of the reason for why flex space use was growing even before the pandemic is that as a workplace strategy, it offers different benefits to different stakeholders. For employees it can be perceived as a perk, since the opportunity to have more flexibility in working from the office or from home is something many employees want. And for their companies, flex space helps reduce the total number of workers in the office at any one time, allowing floor plans to shrink, and lease costs with them.

Of course COVID-19 has been transformational for offices everywhere, and ones that offer flex space are no exception. Now that many cities have been grappling with not one but two or more waves of major outbreak events, plenty of businesses are reading the writing on the wall and moving to more flexible models for the long term. The list of major companies in tech, financial services, and even media that have gone to a long-term or permanent remote work-optional model includes such names as REI and Microsoft.

Employers these days also have to face a new reality of employees who want to live farther and farther away from traditional urban centers.The outbreak has pushed people out of the densest areas and towards suburbs and more rural towns, but once again COVID-19 can’t take all the credit. Back in 2018, data from the Pew Research Center showed that suburbs, already more populous than cities or rural areas, were growing faster than urban places within the United States. Now, though, against the backdrop of COVID-19 and the greater flexibility many modern workplaces are giving their employees, suburbs are seeing increasing activity compared to their urban counterparts. Consequently, flex space can be used as one way to offer workspaces to increasingly geographically diverse employees.

It’s important, therefore, to keep in mind what flex space is really offering in the context of 2020. While it may be tempting to see it as a solution to the challenges of COVID-19, particularly when looking at the example of the big companies that have recently moved toward remote-oriented or more flex-aligned work modes, the reality is that flex space is simply the newest iteration of how we work as a society, and it would be the way of the future whether COVID-19 was around to accelerate the trend or not. 

Flex is the way of the future for a wide range of cultural reasons in addition to the more easily defined ones listed above, as well. For one thing, building a culture of flexibility can decrease risk in times of uncertainty. COVID-19 is of course the preeminent example of this, but consider that many businesses only actually took the steps to go flexible because of the coronavirus in the first place, even if it is the way of the future. In other words, 2020 is the “test year” for managing the flex space experience. In future years, perhaps ones with other forms of political, environmental or healthcare disruption, the businesses that “upped their game” in 2020 will have a step up in minimizing disruption and reducing lost productivity. They will have already built the critical skill sets that working in teams composed of some members on-site and some members remote require.

Ensuring a consistent workplace experience requires a broad foundation of technologies upon which to build, and businesses that make the move toward flexible working now will also have a big step up in the technology department, as compared to businesses that wait for change to be forced on them. Three of the larger technology building blocks that companies should be adopting are high-quality communication tools, occupier monitoring technology to reduce wasted energy and space, and secure connectivity systems to enable people to stay productive and work seamlessly across distributed teams. Upgrading these systems will go a long way to preparing businesses for the coming decade.

For employees, this means less disruption in future times of uncertainty. Perhaps we hit another unlucky year halfway through the new decade, and some other black swan event forces many of us to return to working from home, even if it isn’t our favorite option. Employees of companies that already got onto the flex space wagon will be much better equipped to handle the travails of another challenging year, as compared to those businesses that insisted on retaining traditional work arrangements. Resources will be available for use from a mixture of remote and in-person workers, over a range of spaces, thus ensuring that all employees within the organization receive a similar experience of service accessibility regardless of where they are. 

Building towards flexibility for the sake of futureproofing is not the same as simply giving employees carte blanche to work from home whenever they feel like it, and dropping all support from that point on. Indeed, working from home alone is often a poor substitute for other forms of workplace management. According to a CBRE study, 70 percent of U.S. workers want to return to the office for three or more days a week. And working from home doesn’t always cut it, particularly in larger organizations that require numerous teams to frequently work on deeply collaborative projects. Working from home also often lacks the humanity and social element of an office environment. 

Balancing remote and in-office time is a critical job for any modern space manager. Offices need to be compelling enough to bring people back into them, but offer resources that are also available, for the most part, to people working out of home offices. According to Jeremy Bernard, North America CEO for flex space technology company essensys, “Tenant engagement, amenity and space management, value-added occupier services, and IT and network infrastructure are the core components to a productive and seamless occupier experience in a flexible office environment. Mastering these components with the right technology and resources, enables landlords and space providers to explore new business models and de-risk their proposition by attracting and retaining tenants.” 

Flexible offices are not a new thing, despite what some of the COVID-19-related headlines might say. But they are the ideal fit for a world that is increasingly uncertain. If managers lack perfect clarity into the world over the next decade or even next year, why go all-in on a traditional or remote-oriented workplace policy? Being adaptable and resilient may not be an easy goal to achieve, but flex space gets workplaces a little closer.

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