The office has been changing for some time but the pace has certainly accelerated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Laura Jones from Irwin Mitchell's Real Estate team explores some of the issues to consider.

Offices of the past

The office was becoming more than just a work space. It was moving away from private working and towards collaborative spaces. This encompassed areas for individual work, group sessions, quiet space, chill out areas and even office cafes.  A mix of office based and remote working was becoming more common.

Communal working and hot-desking was introduced to assist collaboration both within teams and with other departments. Such a shift was only possible due to IT. Offices were moving away from the desktop computer to laptops. Online storage, such as the cloud, had reduced the need for paper and site based storage.   

Collaborative working apps, such as Skype, had also made remote working possible.

Due to the changes in working, offices were looking to reduce their real estate footprint. Fully remote working was likely unforeseen as the requirement for a hub was recognised. However, a balance was being struck by employers to optimise working between the office and home to generate productivity and to promote smarter working enabling agile working methods.

The Covid office

The onset of Covid-19 has seemingly accelerated the shift that was already happening. Employers quickly ensured that all their employees had the IT and collaborative working apps (which developed rapidly) that they needed to work remotely which has demonstrated to employers how much work can be done efficiently from home.  It also seems that many prefer working from home – or did initially.

As lockdown eased over the summer, people began to venture into restaurants and shops; schools reopened, but the re-opening of offices was limited and non-existent in some cases. Those who returned to the office found PPE, sanitising stations, one way systems and rules for the use of lifts.

We have been working from home where possible with a tiered lockdown system. The occurrence of variants has meant that things have become uncertain again and brought a third lockdown with more stringent measures. Until social distancing is ended, the full re-opening of offices clearly cannot happen. It is estimated that the average office can accommodate 25-60% of their staff while maintaining social distancing and additional cleaning is required to facilitate communal working and hot-desking.

However, not everyone has the ability to work from home; this could be due to their job role, not having access to the required IT, children or dependents at home or lack of working space at home.

Offices of the future

So what is the future of office working? Remote working was becoming more common prior to the pandemic. Employees are now less dependent on the office as they now have the IT to choose the space in which they work.

Employers may opt to bring all staff in on a number of days in a month to facilitate collaborative or group working or group staff into units which are in the office together on certain days to increase efficiency.

In terms of the real estate footprint, offices may decide to reduce their office size and some offices have closed altogether due to the effectiveness of collaborative working appsHowever, it seems that most offices propose to reconfigure their existing space and utilise this to increase efficiency.

Other factors that will play a part are wellbeing and sustainability. Plants, light, fresh air and green spaces are beneficial for productivity. Sustainability will impact on new builds and renovations with the green agenda and requirements to act as a responsible business being high of the agenda.

The 2020 CRBE Global Occupier Sentiment Survey: The Future of the Office reported that “more flexible work is expected: 70% of respondents indicated that some portion of their workforce will be allowed to work remotely full-time; 61% of respondents indicated that all employees would be allowed to work outside the office at least part-time.” Further, they predict that “the physical office will remain important: 41% said the importance of the physical office will decrease only slightly and 38% said it will remain as important, if not more.”

Ultimately, it will depend on the stance of employers as to the size, location and use of the office. There may be a bumpy ride until Covid settles and the vaccine is administered to the population. It seems likely for most that a more flexible hybrid approach will be adopted and the use of the office will continue, but the extent remains to be seen.

What will the implications be of shifting further towards remote working? Will we have a better work life balance? Will we be able to negotiate pay increases if there is less office space? Will it give people the opportunity to live out of our town centres? Will town centres be repurposed? Will we have a greater variety of jobs due to the removal of geographical and even international boundaries? These will all be answered in time.