25 Jan 2021

“The office is dead, long live the office!”

By James Ainsworth.

Photocred: @theblowupphoto

I need not repeat the story of 2020; we have all lived our own version of the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges have been unique to us all by virtue of our circumstances; however we were all unified by the Government’s stay-at-home orders, and may continue to be for some time yet as we flit in and out of local and national lockdowns. With the roll-out of the vaccines well underway and thanks to the herculean effort by the network of NHS and volunteers, there is at least light at the end of the tunnel.

 For the vast majority of us, the pandemic has meant that working from home has become the new normal, and there will be people who have not set foot in their offices since mid-March 2020. But does this mean the death of the office as some commentators have suggested? Not by any stretch; moreover, this is an opportunity for owners and occupiers alike to make some bold moves in delivering the workplace for the new normal that focuses on service, connection and wellbeing.

 We have all heard of some very reactionary responses, made very publicly, that businesses no longer need offices to the extent that they did previously, and that some would be closed on a longer term basis, maybe even permanently; but perhaps this misses the point of the office completely. Undoubtedly, the office, seen solely as a place to travel to in order to merely sit at a desk and undertake a job will have to evolve for those that have not already started this workplace journey. Home working may well now become the workplace of choice for the concentrated lone working environment, and those with a segregated home work space may well thrive on this by managing to avoid the ‘live at work syndrome’ experienced by those working at the kitchen table, or in their shared house bedroom. However we are intrinsically social animals, and thrive on human connection; it motivates, it inspires, it gives purpose. Ergo the office has a purpose, it is the best medium for the work based human connection and it can help to instill corporate values. We are hearing increasingly of home working fatigue and of genuine excitement at the prospect of getting back to the office to engage in person and experience those “bump into” interactions which do not exist in a virtual or remote working environment.

 So what is the role of the office post-COVID then, if not to provide a physical space to work. Well clearly it still has to fulfil this purpose and there will be a proportion of the workforce who are more comfortable physically and mentally in working from the office, maybe full time. The savvy CRE manager will have to consider the needs of the full spectrum of their businesses workforce, not just their senior level cohort, as well as other post-covid evolution such as a reduction in business travel. However there is likely to be a shift to a much more hybrid model where work is split more between home and office, with task appropriate work undertaken in the relevant setting, and the location of working influenced by the shape of the day in terms of meetings and required interactions.

 Regardless of the evolution of collaborative working technologies, virtual meeting platforms, and second life workplaces, (which are all important developments in themselves) which have facilitated our home working hiatus, the office is and should remain the workspace of choice for connection and group working. We must ensure that workplace evolution not only facilitates this, but encourages it. The hybrid model, with increased remote working (based on 2019 standards), may mean that some businesses are able to relinquish office space, but I suggest that this will most likely apply to those businesses that needed to move along a journey of workplace utilisation improvement regardless of the circumstances. For others, the opportunity will be in maximising the use and design of existing space in support of the connection and experience of employees and clients, but also not to forget the needs of those that require concentrated working space in the office.

 The business hotel has been a concept championed by many of the larger corporates for some time, recognising the importance of hospitality and service, not only for clients and visitors, but also for the staff using the space every day. This is going to be the key to the new office experience, and ultimately what will draw people back into the office. The office will be as much a place to work as it will be a place to meet and share experiences with colleagues, clients and contacts. It will be a space to make use of innovative and next level technology and tools, or wellbeing & healthcare resources and experiential environments that cannot be replicated virtually, or in our homes. People may even return to the office to experience high quality food and beverage offerings, both within the office environment and by returning to favourite local high street offerings that have been sorely missed following repeated trips to our uninspiring or empty kitchen fridges. We also shouldn’t overlook the importance to the local economy of the footfall generated by the office and need to bring the buzz back to our towns and cities.

 The challenge now for owners, through the management of multi-let buildings, or occupiers who manage high quality workspaces, will be to embrace this change and not be content to reopen currently mothballed space, expecting it to be used in the same way as in 2019. This may only be a smaller step change for some of the more forward-thinking owners and occupiers, but may be a real leap for those that have not moved with the pace of change in the past 5 - 7 years of workplace evolution. COVID-19 has undoubtedly advanced the workplace by a factor of X (depending on how far along the journey you were in March 2020), it is now our duty to embrace this.

 Property and building managers need to look to embrace service and technology to support their occupiers, and to deliver a level of service to occupiers that will complement and enhance the experience that their staff and visitors receive. The focus of much of the research commissioned by the BCO Occupier Group over the last 5 years is thrown into sharp focus and in particular the 2019 paper titled The Customer Experience Revolution highlights the need for fresh thinking and innovation within the industry not only to provide a higher level of service within the property management industry, but also in order to attract the right talent to continue an upward trend in Customer Experience.

 The space as a service concept has been embraced by the disrupters such as WeWork, TOG and Spaces, with experience and service at the heart of what they do, particularly by creating a sense of community. While their delivery model doesn’t suit everybody and I do not believe that they are the death knell of traditional leasing that was once anticipated, we do have to take learnings from their customer experience model. This is the major attraction to their space and something that service providers and occupiers alike must look to embrace in order to provide the environment and services required to provide an innovative and vibrant workplace through the 2020s. Some great work is being done, as highlighted by the case studies within the 2017 paper Office Service Standards and Customer Experience also commissioned by the BCO Occupier Group, and there are undoubtedly further examples of the continued evolution of CX within the industry.

 Post-Covid, experience will be key, and a picture of excellence in any office or workplace setting will very much focus on innovation in both hard and soft services that create an experience to return for. This is not the death of the office, it is the re-birth.

 As I pick up the mantle as Chair of the BCO Occupier Group, I look forward to championing the position of the occupier in the post-covid recovery and working hand in hand with owner and manager groups within the industry to ensure that we see a successful recovery and growth of the sector, with an emphasis on delivery of great service and continuous innovation.

Follow James Ainsworth on LinkedIn here.

#BCOvoices is a new series of blogs by the BCO. We’ll look at the impact of Covid-19 on the commercial property industry, along with broader topics. If you would be interested in contributing, please contact chane.scallan@bco.org.uk.