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Offices, who needs them?

The future of the office looks much clearer when we stop thinking of it purely as a work space, says Tim McEwan, Managing Director, SH Leadership

The big debate about offices rages on in the press and social media. You’re probably sick of hearing about it by now. You’ve also probably made up your mind about the virtues of Working From Home™ vs Returning To The Office™. (Are you Team WFH or Team Office?)

What will happen once vaccinations allow the economy to reopen? The evidence is mixed. But if we want to predict how the office is likely to evolve post-pandemic, it helps to explore what purpose the office serves – and the mindset of those who occupy it.

It seems Covid has opened Pandora’s box when it comes to remote working. Now that so many companies have been forced to shift to this model, will employees ever want to return? We have shown that we can get our work done, most of our actual desk-based work, from home. Many people have said that they are better at getting it done at home, too. 

People want to stay working from home

A Global Workplace Analytics survey1 from last year seems to back this up. Of 3,000 people surveyed, 68% said they were very successful when working from home. 70% said they performed equally well at home as in the office, while 70% of managers reported the same or better results. Meanwhile, 76% of global employees want to continue working from home. On average their preference is for two days a week.

The most recent quarterly CFO survey from Deloitte2 shows that UK CFOs expect levels of home working “to rise five-fold by 2025 compared with pre-Covid levels”. Amazon, Capital One, Google, and Salesforce are just a few of the high-profile companies who plan to allow most – or all – of their workforce to remain at home well into 2021.

Workers are moving out of the inner cities

Does this mean offices are a thing of the past? Anecdotally, property businesses are worried that they are. We’ve seen the headlines about the risks to Pret a Manger and Costa from people preferring to stay home. Indeed, there have been plenty of articles predicting the end of our inner cities entirely.

Numerous newspaper articles have talked about people moving out of our cities, with house prices for suburban and country properties rising. At the same time, data from Rightmove3 shows that asking prices for rents in the inner cities are down by an average of 12%. As Rightmove puts it, “a significant number of tenants living in city centres have been rethinking where they want to live – with many choosing to move out to the suburbs.”4

The death of the office? Not so fast…

So far, so gloomy for the future prospects of the office. But hold on. Remember that Global Workplace Analytics survey? On average, workers would like to continue working from home 2 days a week, it said. But what about the remaining 3 days? In fact, according to Knight Frank only 8% of people want to work from home 5 days a week.5

And remember that Deloitte CFO survey? A five-fold increase in remote working from pre-Covid levels only means that 27% of work will be done from home, down from an average of 47% during lockdown. On balance, this means more remote working than before the pandemic, true. But that’s still significantly less than there is now.  

So what we’re seeing is not the death of the office so much as an acceptance of greater flexibility. After all, how many headlines have you seen about working-from-home burnout? Or the stress of WFH with children? Or the rise in loneliness and mental health problems?

Offices are not just a place to work

Clearly, people want to return to the office in some form. And I think a lot of that is down to social and mental factors. I believe people have missed their routine. Getting up, sorting out the kids, getting on the train and enjoying a separation between work and home life.

Many people value the sense of security that going to an office provides: “I know I work for a secure business because I come to this big tower every day.”

Linked to that, many also get a sense of pride from it: “I walk into this very smart, polished office every day. Wow this must be a really significant business I work for. I must get more people to come here to see and feel just how impressive we are.” 

But I think what people have missed most is the community that the office provides. When you ask now what the purpose of an office is, you get the same reply: “Collaboration!”

According to Knight Frank6, 53% of UK businesses surveyed said they wanted their offices to feature more collaboration space. (This is just one of many examples you can find essentially saying the same thing.)

This reinforces the idea that the primary role of the office is as a social space. It’s where ideas are shared, relationships built, and unexpected conversations happen.

Why we need offices after all

We can’t throw out the office. We need a hub. Somewhere to meet and somewhere for, at the very least, the post to be delivered. 

But I believe that the shape of these spaces needs to be fundamentally reconsidered. Design them for the purpose they serve. Not as a place for corporate drones to sit at their desk simply turning the handle, but places where new ideas can flourish and where connections are made. Turn them into crucibles of collaboration.

There are of course multiple stakeholders to address and everyone sits on a spectrum. Individuals have their different reasons for wanting to come to the office. Some have done so for their whole career and can’t bring themselves to change. Some need to escape horrific domestic situations. Others simply relish the time on the commute and in the company of others. And of course, some genuinely can’t get their work done without being in the office.

So, when we get around to redesigning our spaces let’s be more broadminded. It’s not about just sticking in some table tennis or pool tables and going all WeWork. It’s about creating an atmosphere and culture which promotes collaboration and the creation of the social glue that holds us all together.

Perhaps you design the whole office around a focal point which is an open plan ‘island’ kitchen. It’s where we relax with a coffee or a sandwich at lunch. (And there must be a reason why all the best house parties always end up in the kitchen.) Let’s have long worktables where people can gather. Let’s have pods for discreet conversations. And, yes, let’s even have desks to allow people to get on with their work.