The outbreak of the coronavirus meant that most companies had to quickly move their employees to a remote setup. Naturally, there were a few initial snags, yet over time it became apparent that, for many, homeworking was a success. People swiftly adapted to using software on a daily basis, such as Teams, Google Hangouts, Zoom and Trello, with a boost in productivity in many cases and no knock-on effect on the quality of work.
Yet with many countries now starting to ease lockdown restrictions, what will the return to the office look like? It can’t simply be a case of ‘business as usual’, due to social distancing. As the transition to remote-working was such a smooth process, will this see companies reduce the size of their workspaces, or even decide to not return to the office full stop?
Lewis Beck, EMEA Head of Workplace for CBRE, a real estate services and investment firm, thinks that many companies will change their office space in time – with some even needing to increase their office footprint because of a long-term redefinition of maximum occupancy. He believes that we will potentially witness a “rationalised physical footprint, made up of a different composition of space that is higher quality and better-equipped to support employee needs”.
“The shift we envisaged towards a more fluid workplace anchored by a high-quality headquarter space and supported by a network of smaller locations will become a reality more quickly than anticipated pre-COVID-19.”
Time to renegotiate?
For those of you in the middle of a lease agreement, will it even be an option to make substantial changes to the amount of space you have – and pay for?
Given the current circumstances, your landlord might be open to renegotiation talks. However, Steven Porter, Head of Commercial Property at JPC Law, says that if a landlord refuses to negotiate revised terms, there’s no legal mechanism at present to force them to do otherwise. If your lease allows it, subletting might be an option – if a subtenant deemed acceptable by the landlord can be found.
“Early dialogue is key. Most importantly, if an adjustment is agreed with the landlord, it’s essential that it’s documented to avoid any future misunderstandings.”
Estate agency and property consultancy Knight Frank notes that it’s not been aware of many companies seeking to downsize or renegotiate their leases thus far, compared to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash when many businesses actively looked to get rid of office space.
William Matthews, a partner in the Capital Markets Research team at Knight Frank comments:
“There’s certainly been a lot of talk about the ‘death of the office’. But I think, in the long run, people do want to go back to the office – maybe not sticking rigidly to five days a week as we might have done before, but I don’t think it necessarily means we’ll need less office space.
“Before the pandemic, we all built up a degree of social capital with our colleagues, and without a central office where people can come together, this social capital could be eroded over time. So, having an office is almost even more important in the long run than it was in the past.”
He also goes on to say that having an attractive office space that appeals to employees will continue to be important when it comes to attracting and retaining the right staff.
Matthews believes that firms will now focus more on certain aspects, such as office location, rather than move away from offices altogether. It goes without saying that many employees will be looking to minimise their commute, and so ensuring the work space is located close to major transport hubs could be significant for employers. He also suggests that firms might choose to lease flexible spaces on the outskirts of larger towns, so as to limit their employees’ commuting time.
But broadly speaking, retaining an office space – albeit potentially a smaller space than before – is still meaningful, he says.
“When it comes to innovation and thinking about new business and products, it’s harder to do that when working from home. Often, people do need to be together to do more interesting, innovative work. That, for us, is a key facet of what an office can and should provide.”
For those of you who do decide to return to office-based working, Lewis proposes that open-plan offices may need to be overhauled somewhat. For example, companies could ‘compartmentalise’ – in other words, create a mix of open and enclosed spaces that will better align with the need for social distancing while limiting the spread of germs.
“Occupiers will place a stronger emphasis on building specifications and healthy workplace features as they focus on employee health to preserve long-term productivity. Long term, we’ll see a preference for buildings with ‘healthy’ credentials related to indoor air quality and ventilation, as fresh air reduces the spread of airborne germs. Currently, buildings are required to comply with a minimum 20% fresh air intake, while some choose to exceed this requirement by going up to 30%. Revisiting the minimum requirement may be a next step for facility operators.”
If you’re planning on bringing employees back into the office in the medium term, bear in mind that it may not be possible for all your staff to return at the same time. Consider implementing a one-way system, introducing phased occupation and shifts in order to ensure staff are spaced at a suitable distance from one another, and make sure sanitation products are to hand.
Whatever your thoughts are on the matter, COVID-19 is changing the way we think about work. Entrepreneurs ought to be prepared to adopt a more flexible stance about their physical work spaces and staff – after all, it makes sense to take advantage of opportunities in the post-COVID-19 environment.
The opinions expressed by third parties are their own are not necessarily shared by St. James’s Place Wealth Management.