Whether it’s all at once, arranged in shifts, or phased in over time, the world is going back to work. And while we’re all at different points on the timeline of return, with many of us still operating out of our homes and others back in the saddle, it’s fair to say that the conversation around what offices will look like has never included so many voices.
But for all the talk about flexibility and finding creative solutions to the needs of a diversifying working world, each of these solutions is ultimately stationary. Even an office decked out with modular partitions, office pods, and glass walls that can move from place to place cannot itself move an inch. Office real estate will always be completely tied to a given address, regardless of changes in demographics, market conditions, or nearby inventory.
It may not always be that way, though. Right now, there are a growing number of indicators that offices could become more mobile with time, not only able to redefine their internal configuration, but also able to change their very locations. Consider offices built into vehicles, which are now becoming more common. Of course, the heavily modified Cadillac mobile office SUVs soon to be offered by aftermarket modder Lexani Motorcars are one thing, at an opulent price tag. But Ford’s recent announcement that the 2021 F150 truck will offer a central armrest that can fold into a flat workspace large enough for a laptop, as well as a broadband internet connection, means that mobile offices are about to become a real thing for many Americans.
Mobile office solutions are applicable to more than just individual workers, though. Biuronakółkach, or “Office on Wheels,” is a rentable office built into a van that recently launched in Warsaw. The van is meant to serve as an office that can go to various sites and thus prevent clients or customers from needing to come into a real office, which could potentially expose them to the coronavirus. According to Piotr Stec, co-creator of the project, “It could be suitable, for example, for property development companies that do not have a stationary office on the investment site. But I also think interest could come from real estate agencies, banks, insurance companies, and consultancies.” It’s easy to see how such a service will retain its usefulness in a post-coronavirus world. Saving clients and customers time commuting could be very advantageous for various high-touch industries like financial advisors, real estate brokers, and the others that Piotr listed.
Of course, offices that have the capacity to be relocated are not new. Like the co-working spaces before them, the capacity for mobile offices has existed for a long time without being fully taken advantage of. Numerous construction sites and other industrial settings have temporary offices built in shipping containers or semi trailers. But thus far, they have functioned as just that: semi-permanent, temporary structures that can be relocated only with some effort and planning. Much like the transition from coffee shop to co-working space, the real opportunity for mobile offices is more a matter of creativity and implementation than technology or engineering. Consider the 60×12’ office trailers offered by Willscot. These trailers could offer comfortable workspaces for half a dozen or more employees each.
This kind of solution may not be applicable for the bulk of a company’s workforce, but for small businesses it could represent a compelling alternative to a conventional lease. For bigger companies, mobile offices could serve as attractive options for less-heavily staffed satellite offices. For artisans and craftsmen and other sellers of goods with sizable operations, a mobile office could be the ideal solution to the typical life on the road that accompanies following trade shows, fairs, and industry events.
For traditional occupiers, like financial institutions and consumer goods brands, there’s another angle to this that could be applicable to employees across the board. This is the virtual office. Virtual offices do not focus around an individual physical workplace but rather a bundle of benefits that any worker can leverage, from anywhere. In some cases, virtual office providers will then also offer a physical space that can be used for meetings, collaborative work or socializing with coworkers. If co-working providers like WeWork pitch that they offer a membership to space anywhere, virtual office providers like Servcorp offer services anywhere, and a hub space located in a specific physical location.
According to Marcus Moufarrige, founder of ility, a SaaS solution for commercial spaces and previously COO for Servcorp, companies don’t need a global network of spaces if they don’t have business around the globe. “People still want a sun in their work universe, something to orbit around,” Marcus said. But beyond that, Marcus suggested, employees can work flexibly from home or elsewhere through the benefits of a virtual office: things like package receiving, a mailing address, telephone answering services and on-demand conference rooms.
This is, in many ways, a new paradigm for real estate. If co-working is space-as-a-service, virtual offices and related services offer productivity-as-a-service, Marcus added. Where once landlords focused solely on the provision of space, in the modern age, the role of the landlord is different. “Who will offer productivity as a service to employees,” Marcus asked. “Will it be the enterprise, the landlord, or a combination of both? Probably a combination of both.”
It’s in this space between mobile offices and virtual offices that the risk becomes apparent to traditional office landlords. Just how many leases could these solutions siphon off? There are over twelve million businesses between one and four employees, and almost two million with between five and nine employees. These organizations could eventually lean heavily towards mobile or virtual offices, particularly if they want to find workspaces near the employees or customers. This is in contrast to the traditional old paradigm where companies would locate wherever there happened to be an office property with favorable lease rates. So no, the stable office markets in downtown New York and Chicago have nothing to fear. But smaller office centers in suburbs and rural areas could very well start losing lessees to independently-owned mobile offices in the near future.
A shift toward mobile and virtual offices would have ripple effects throughout the rest of the real estate world. For one thing, parking lots and vacant lots could become “co-working land” where a number of mobile office tenants have flexible ground lease terms. In turn, residential and retail developments might start to allocate more space for parking in order to provide service for possible mobile office tenants, much as owners are already outfitting their properties with electric car charging stations before the vehicles are actually widespread. And, considering the arrival of individual mobile offices like the new F150, residential developments may start caring less about proximity to big employers, and instead start focusing on cutting costs or providing access to recreational areas.
While the future will likely not be dominated by mobile offices alone, their arrival in conjunction with the growth of virtual offices will very likely chip away at traditional leasing activity. But this need not be a bad thing. With the right approach, traditional landlords can expand to offer services that stretch beyond the walls of the office, getting ahead of the curve, and anticipating the needs of a growing remote employee base. “Tenants need more choices in terms of what is offered to them by providers of space,” Marcus said. If the property industry finds new, valuable choices for tenants we might look back on the 2020s as a renaissance of creativity for office landlords, rather than the Dark Ages.