15 Feb 2021

BCO Voices: An Occupiers Insight. Why the virtual office will never replace ‘live work’

By Christopher D Richmond MBA MRICS, Senior Head of Real Estate, PwC

Photocred: Ant Rozetsky

A revolution currently evolving suggests that the traditional office environment is soon to be a thing of the past and be replaced by the virtual office where staff work predominately from home. This supposes that offices will be smaller but used more intensively, made possible by the growth of information and communication technology and desk sharing, offering the potential for savings in occupational costs. At the same time, providing an opportunity to design a solution that optimises the infrastructure expected by staff, creates more efficient methods of working and maximises utilisation. Consequently, the way business manages its people’s needs and operates its office space will be transformed.

Some of you may be surprised to learn the above is an extract from my MBA Dissertation entitled ‘Alternative Ways of Working and its Impact on Future Office Accommodation Needs’ written in 1998. I was struck by how similar my research at that time is reminiscent of those discussions we are having today. Back then technology greatly influenced work styles during the 1980’s when we saw PC’s start to emerge on every desk reinforcing the convention at the time that individuals were fixed to workstations. The 1990’s started having a profound impact on working patterns when the Internet began linking together people and business via information networks on a global scale. The emergence of the information age increasingly centred around the concept of a virtual organisation that created a web of workers, capital, and technologies who operated in a flexible and agile way.

Fast track to 2020 and the outbreak of Coronavirus (Covid-19) has necessitated home working for most office based staff creating a fundamental social change that places people at the heart of modern business. The virtual working utopia we have been looking for it seems. Well not quite. Many employers are taking the opportunity to reassess their business and workforce needs to redefine their workplace strategy that supports the emergence of hybrid working. This envisages staff time being split between the office and home, or elsewhere, leading to inevitable changes to working behaviours and employment conditions. The consequences of these changes will involve looking beyond flexibility and agility techniques to clearly defining how workplaces will function to meet the essential social human needs. In other words, ensuring the working environment is safe, nurturing, secure, calm and aesthetic as a prerequisite to psychological health, well-being and growth. All of which is essential to encourage and reassure staff returning to the office.

Designing a creative, supportive and engaging workplace where people can work intuitively and interact on a human scale should remain the prime objective. But office experience counts for a lot and whilst the long held belief that it should be seen as a ‘business hotel’ in delivering 5 star service and hospitality still holds true, I believe we are entering a new paradigm with the emergence of the ‘business theatre’. A place of opportunities to enhance human condition and gatherings. Where people become the performers and the office provides the stage for social engagement, self-discovery, expression, education and creativity.

As I sit in my garden office writing this article, I am practicing the very essence of home working utilising technology and information networks that were not invented when I started my career in 1988. But here’s the rub. Lockdown has taken away the place where my career was formed, where my dreams are enacted, relationships forged, and successes shared. After almost a year of restrictions, I miss watching ‘live sport’ and attending ‘live events’ that was once our freedom and liberty. But more than this, I crave daily face-to-face interaction and participating in ‘live work’ in a physical office. It is for these reasons the virtual office will never replace the ecosystem dynamics of a vibrant and engaging live office workplace that encourages and enables us to achieve great things, that lifts our spirits and morale when we are down but more importantly, reminds us that we are social beings and that we thrive when we have human contact.

#BCOvoices is a series of blogs looking 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.

Follow Christopher Richmond on LinkedIn here.