How Covid-19 has accelerated workplace transformation
A huge shift in working patterns means companies are looking to a future of flexible, hybrid-style workplaces which better address the needs of workers.
The move of workforces out of central offices and into remote locations when Covid-19 hit was unprecedented in speed and scale. There had been significant changes before – people have moved from factories into offices and from cubicles to open plan to periodically working from home. This time it was so sudden and comprehensive that it transformed how people think about a central headquartered office, bringing the benefits of flexible workspaces into sharp relief. As a real estate and workplace practitioner at WeWork, Ronen Journo sees the pandemic as a catalyst for transformation, ‘Covid is the biggest accelerator of change to the world of work in a century. Choice and flexibility of how and where to work were trends that began over 20 years ago and have simply been massively accelerated.’
‘Choice and flexibility of how and where to work were trends that began over 20 years ago and have simply been massively accelerated.’
WeWork’s enterprise and workplace SVP Ronen Journo
The future of remote workingThe enforced shift to remote work has shown that, in the short term, employees can be productive outside of the traditional office, and 70 per cent of companies now see a future which features more remote work, compared with just 37 per cent pre-Covid, according to research by CBRE1. However, with 90 per cent of workers saying they want to return to the office at least one day a week2, companies must find a way to offer the combined strengths of the traditional office and remote working. ‘People are expressing strong views that in the new norm, they will want to have a choice of where to work,’ says Journo.
The pandemic has highlighted the advantages of flexible shared space, which for years has allowed occupiers to scale up or down as needed. The current uncertainty means this flexibility is more crucial than ever. In addition, with an active virus, companies must decide how to make room for their employees to spread out, either by having only a portion of the workforce in the office at any one time, on a rotation system, or by taking on extra square footage.
Businesses are reimagining the workspace with increased focus on design elements such as seating, use of space, social and outside options.
The value of locationThis de-densification is also being achieved through establishing a network of offices – a move particularly attractive for employees reluctant to take public transport and which also reduces that perennial bugbear, the commute. For many businesses a blend of these options is a result of the newly cemented bond of trust between employee and employer. Reducing central office space and giving workers the option of working remotely – either at home or at a satellite office – can both cut costs and maximise productivity. According to research by Deloitte, of the 38 per cent of financial services employees in London who felt more productive working remotely, 72 per cent cited less commuting as the reason3.
Shared workspaces, often even closer to home, are becoming increasingly popular. Projections by Coworking Resources and Coworker.com indicate that almost five million people will be using coworking spaces by 2024, an increase of 158 per cent on 20204.
Flexible working based on choice, trust and enabling technology maximises what Journo calls 'the most precious aspects in people’s lives – time and health'.
Productivity and Remote WorkingWhile some claim that their productivity has increased while working from home, others have had a very different experience. Hurriedly assembled, cramped workspaces, managing shared space, the awkwardness of having bedrooms and kitchens on display during video calls, lack of amenities such as breakout areas and pantries – these all made working from home a less than comfortable experience, and 35 per cent of employers admit they have concerns over employee productivity5.
As workers move back to the office, a growing focus on design elements, such as seating, use of space, social and outside options, means those who favour adaptability can maximise productivity. ‘Covid has proved that the majority of office work can be performed anywhere,’ explains Journo. ‘This has prompted businesses to ask: what is the purpose of an office? Is it to align with my brand and my organisational culture, or to meet my colleagues to use particular equipment?’
Flexible offices were predicted to represent one fifth of all leased office space in central London by 20306, even before the pandemic surfaced. ‘For a long time the discussion about office space has revolved around two extremes: flexible floor plans versus traditional cellular floor plans,’ explains Franquibel Lima, regional head of design studio at WeWork. ‘But the pandemic has helped business leaders realise that it doesn’t need to be a choice between one or the other. It’s about designing spaces that allow for flexibility of use. There isn’t one blueprint of office design that works for all.’
‘It’s about designing spaces that allow for flexibility of use. There isn’t one blueprint of office design that works for all.’
WeWork’s regional head of design studio Franquibel Lima
In a post-Covid world, companies are looking for less dense, more flexible office space.
The Future Is Flexible
‘The office building of the future is going to be accelerated due to Covid, meaning that we’ll have five years of change rammed into six to 12 months of activity,’ says Stewart Smith, head of CBRE’s UK Flex Advisory and Transaction Services. ‘This acceleration is a chance for the birth of the smart flexible office, which is more efficient and intentional. We will use them differently and get a much more rewarding experience. Flex is here to stay because the occupiers really value it. Everyone wants to consume differently, including in real estate.’
- CBRE 2020 Global Occupier Sentiment Survey
- WeWork / Bright spot The Impact of working from home on collaboration, 2020
- Deloitte, The Future of the City, 2020
- CoworkingResources / Coworker.com Global Coworking Growth Study 2020
- Society for Human Resource Management COVID-19 Research
- CBRE forecast