The return to the office: how will Covid-19 transform where and how we work?

18 Jun 2020

Ryan Tholet

Head of Investec Private Bank

I’ve written at some length about the potential implications of this pandemic for the residential property sector. What will it mean for how we live? Where we live? How we search for and purchase property in the future?

As the nation – and indeed a large portion of the world – retreated indoors under lockdown, it’s been fascinating to explore and consider the role of our homes, and how this will shift in the future as a result of some of the changes brought about by Covid-19.
 
But what of the future of commercial property and – more specifically – the office?
 
Myself and my colleagues here at Investec are far from alone in becoming used to working from home over recent months. For those organisations who have been able to carry out operations remotely, conducting meetings via video conference has become the norm and we have all become more familiar with the inside of our colleagues’ homes than we probably ever expected to be.
 
Now though, as lockdown restrictions gradually ease and businesses begin to turn their attention to a plan for migrating staff back to an office – or not in some cases – the time has come to think about what this might look like in practice. 

What does the office of the future look like?

Let’s start by thinking about the physical make-up of the office.
 
In May, the Government published its Guidance for Working Safely During Coronavirus, featuring guidelines concerning every aspect of office life, including coming to and leaving work, attending meetings, the set-up of desks and workstations, as well as – unsurprisingly – a great number of hygiene measures.
 
Likewise, with social distancing guidelines still very much in place, requiring people to maintain a distance of two meters away from each other at all times, it goes without saying that the set-up of the office environment will need to change.
 
Every office is different and there will be nuances, of course, but broadly speaking we can expect to see a review of desk layouts to allow people to maintain distance while working, with the use of hot desks ruled out altogether. Businesses are advised to stagger employee arrival and departure times, to install screens in receptions and other communal areas, to reduce maximum occupancy for office lifts, and to introduce a ‘one way flow’ system through areas of the building. Enhanced cleaning procedures will be required, particularly in bathrooms and in open-plan areas, and employees will be encouraged to bring their own food in order to avoid opening staff canteens.
 
In short – and this summary is by no means exhaustive – businesses will be required to rethink the fundamental ways in which their offices are structured and used. In a global memo to employees, Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote that the pandemic has given the organisation the opportunity to “reimagine how we work.” 
Ryan Tholet Head of Investec Private Bank

Every office is different and there will be nuances, of course, but broadly speaking we can expect to see a review of desk layouts to allow people to maintain distance while working, with the use of hot desks ruled out altogether.

Ryan Tholet Head of Investec Private Bank

A luxury, not the norm?

With such drastic measures required in order to make offices fit and safe for resumed use, many businesses will be planning a phased approach to returning to the office. Taking this approach will allow businesses to gradually test and coordinate new systems, such as one-way-routes and reconfigured desk layouts. This brings with it the benefit of allowing organisations to remove a certain amount of office furniture, thus reducing density and better enabling social distancing.
 
As such, many businesses will look to a ‘timetabled’ approach to reintroducing staff to the office, in order to reduce the pressure on hosting every member of the workforce at once - particularly in the early days as new office designs are trialled.
 
There are a multitude of ways to manage this process, but a relatively simple approach might be to limit the office as a resource for those teams or departments who require a space for important meetings or staff training - in other words, appointments that notably benefit from being done in person.
 
In this school of thought, we see the office become a luxury, offering valuable in-person work and learning where it is most required, while desk-based work which is less reliant on interaction remains carried out from home. 

This isn’t the end for home working

I don’t believe that the lifting of lockdown, or even the passing of the pandemic altogether, will mark the end for working from home. I wrote in a previous piece of the geographical freedom with which many of us have been gifted as a result of becoming ‘untethered’ from our office (and the potential surge in home buyers moving outside of the city as a result).
 
A few weeks further down the line, and I still believe this to be the case. While it is not for everyone – let’s not overlook the social benefits of spending time with our co-workers face-to-face – for many, remote working is a welcome opportunity for greater flexibility.
 
The intersection of the ‘traditional’ office and the ‘home office’ also throws up some interesting further questions. If the traditional office space does indeed become a once or twice per week trip for important meetings, businesses may find themselves having to think carefully about what it is that constitutes an ‘essential’ versus ‘non-essential’ meeting, for example.
 
Either way the likelihood is that, in many organisations, staff will still find themselves working from home far more often than they were used to prior to Covid-19. This means that our homes will need to be both office and living space; as Jo Eccles, the Managing Director of SP Property Group, told us in a recent Investec webinar on the future of property, “people will need to get more out of their home than they previously needed to - and this will include a really functional study or working space that is going to work in the long term.”
 
Looking further to the future, there is a chance that, in due course, some organisations may find themselves readdressing working hours: if employees are no longer required to be in the same physical space to do work, is it still essential that the entire workforce adheres to the traditional 9 to 5? As ever, the answer to this question will vary according to the style and type of work that is being carried out, but it warrants consideration nonetheless. 

What has this done to the market?

I’ll end by touching on the implications of all of this for the commercial property market more broadly.
 
We’re at a particularly interesting moment in time as we watch the lines between the commercial office and the home office blur.
 
Some organisations may decide that, if they are to reduce their reliance on an office, they can downsize, or turn to other models such as co-working. For others, perhaps, the office may eventually be seen as surplus to requirements.
 
So what will happen to these spaces that have been lying empty for the last couple of months? One potential route is that we will see some commercial property transformed into residential, a move that could quite drastically transform the concept of the city centre as we know it.
 
We may also see forsaken office space given over to communities, becoming a space for cultural centres and community hubs. Certainly, Covid-19 has brought about a reinvigorated sense of community and neighbourhood spirit, and there is a clear role that commercial property could play in providing the physical premises for community and philanthropic initiatives. This trend of so-called ‘civic placemaking’ is something that emerged clearly in a research report we recently conducted in consultation with The Future Laboratory. The report looks at the decade ahead and – in particular – the more active role that businesses will play in society in the future.
 
The reality is that it remains too early to make any certain predictions at this stage. We cannot yet pinpoint the shape of economic recovery, nor the extent of financial damage suffered by businesses during the outbreak.
 
In the weeks ahead we can expect to see many businesses commence a gradual return to the office. As we do so, there will be much to learn: a lot has changed since we last sat at our desks. But I agree with the words of Google’s Sundar Pichai: this really is an opportunity to reimagine how we work and - eventually - the role that our very buildings play within society.