Since its outbreak, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a long-term trend towards remote and hybrid working patterns. This has seen workforces across the world combine remote and home working with periods in the office, perhaps for meetings and creative collaboration.
This approach has largely been facilitated by cloud-based services that have transformed how people can access vital information, databases, and work documents securely wherever they are located.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that those businesses which had already developed a hybrid working pattern at the start of the pandemic were much more resilient and able to adapt to lockdowns than those who hadn’t.
Now, a combination of commercial priorities and shifting employee expectations mean that hybrid working is becoming the norm and the commercial property market has had to adapt accordingly.
Hybrid working is transforming the commercial property market
At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, offices and other commercial spaces were left silent and empty. Many building projects that were due to be completed were shelved and there was widespread uncertainty about the scale of return to the office that we might see going forward. However, the more pessimistic forecasts about commercial buildings being left largely empty with huge losses predicted for commercial property companies have not been realised.
Rather than completely vacating office space, how businesses use that space has started to change. Whereas existing contracts for large office spaces have been ongoing, there is some anecdotal evidence suggesting that companies are now looking for smaller overall floor spaces to help them adapt for a hybrid future.
However, it’s important to remember that hybrid working doesn’t necessarily mean less space is required. Although the number of permanent desks may be reduced, creative desk lay-outs and break-out areas for increased flexibility and collaborative engagement will make a different use of the available space.
Hybrid working is changing office design
Hybrid working, underpinned by rapid digitalisation, is changing office design expectations. Rather than large open plan office and cubicle-based workspaces, shared and more intimate spaces are becoming increasingly common. Offices will provide space for collaborative working, as well as more space to socialise and network.
The average office will no longer be the place where most of the business of the company is conducted. Work will be able to be carried out at a distance with a dispersed workforce perhaps coming into the office to work on specific projects, collaborate or meet clients.
People at different stages of their career may have different working patterns, with young members of staff gaining from the experience of being in the office for their career development, and more experienced members of the team working remotely to help them balance other responsibilities.
A booking system might be used to allow employees to book workspaces and meeting areas, with the space reconfigured to include hot-desking areas and social spaces. Meeting rooms may also include facilities for video conferencing for remote working staff.
The office as a social anchor
While many people enjoyed not having to face the morning commute during the pandemic others ultimately found it challenging. The social aspect of work is still important, with the office allowing us to enjoy face-to-face encounters with colleagues, making emotional connections, expressing empathy, and discussing the world around us. This is an important part of work culture for many people and while some information-based roles can be successfully carried out remotely, others require the added social element that offices can bring.
During the pandemic, meetings were scheduled using technology such as Zoom or Teams, replacing the more informal aspects of office life such as wandering over to someone’s desk to ask them a question. There is no doubt that online meetings will continue to flourish but it is unlikely to completely replace the desire to have face-to-face meetings.
For this reason, offices are still likely to act as a social anchor for the company, allowing employees to enjoy the benefits of working together with as much or as little remote working as is practical or possible.
What does this mean for commercial property?
Although there were some who were quick to predict that remote working would spell the end of the office, that’s not been the case. Instead, a new more flexible model is emerging. It still requires office space, but the design and layout of those buildings will need to evolve to reflect different needs.
As well as creating challenges for commercial developers and property owners it also provides opportunities. Developers who can provide businesses with the kind of flexible spaces they need are likely to find their property in demand going forward.
Developers that focus on innovation, sustainability and creativity will be those that reap the benefits of this brave new world of hybrid working.