Illustration: Danilo Agutoli
One of my highlights of last month was returning to our Mitie office at The Shard. It feels like every day we see conflicting predictions about the future of offices once the pandemic eases. In the early days of working from home, it was heralded as the end of the office altogether – Facebook and Twitter were among the first to announce that all their employees would be able to work from home permanently. As more time passed and the novelty wore off over a long dark winter, the pendulum swung back and it was all about when offices could re-open.
I think the answer is likely to be found somewhere in the middle: a hybrid world that offers employees flexibility to work from a variety of hub locations. The most recent RICS Commercial Survey results suggest this is what many firms are planning for, with 95% of our survey respondents expecting businesses to scale back their office footprint to some extent over the next two years. Most felt this would be a reduction of 5-10%, but some felt it would be as large as 15%.
If the office of the future is likely to be smaller, it’s also likely to be more collaborative because the purpose of workplaces is changing. The reasons to go into the office will need to be more compelling and employees will have a new set of outcomes in mind. Technology, wellbeing, sustainability and flexibility will be the key drivers of change.
In terms of technology, employees will be looking for a seamless experience. At Mitie, we want to give our colleagues confidence that the office is a safe space for them. We have a new app that allows us all to book desks easily (no cumbersome spreadsheets) and see capacity in the office in real-time, allowing everyone to make decisions about whether to come in. We’ve also installed new UV air disinfection technology throughout the office and a thermal imaging camera at the entrance to measure temperature– these kind of measures are likely to become the norm. It will also be critical to ensure digital infrastructure is sufficiently robust to ensure people can fully participate in meetings, whether they are in the office or joining from home.
While wellbeing spaces in offices are not new, the most recent RICS Facilities Management Survey showed that employee health and wellbeing has seen some of the strongest growth in investment this year. This is only likely to grow further in future years as we start to understand the relationship between the workplace, people and technology.
Some buildings have started to integrate wellbeing into their design from an early stage, like 22 Bishopsgate which opened last year in London. Designed to be the gold standard, it includes an onsite food market, restaurants, a public viewing platform, gym and wellbeing studio. In the longer term, this concept of wellbeing-based working is likely to become more widespread, combining sensory aspects of the environment with technology and workplace strategy to create more inspiring and productive offices.
Sustainability will also need to be factored in, to ensure all offices can contribute to our long-term climate goals. This will require us to deploy smarter technologies in both old and new offices. We know that retrofitting will be such an important part of meeting our climate commitments, which means thinking about how we can apply technology in older buildings too. For example, the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership is transforming an old telephone exchange building into an ultra-low carbon office space, creating a modern working environment while reducing whole-life carbon emissions by 80%.
Flexibility will be the most critical component for future offices. Leasing data from 2020 showed short term renewals were higher than usual, suggesting tenants are reluctant to commit long term. This is not surprising given remote working in the context of a pandemic is different to working remotely in normal circumstances and it will take time for employees and employers alike to settle into a new rhythm. However, it is clear that the most valuable spaces in the future are likely to be those that can be easily re-configured, allowing employers to create more or less communal space as circumstances change.
It is important for us to remember in these discussions that there are so many professions where home working simply is not an option. Remote working tends to be highly concentrated within skilled, educated workers in a handful of geographies, industries and occupations. Current estimates from McKinsey suggest that perhaps 20% of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week without affecting productivity.
Before the pandemic, around 5% of workers were remote in advanced economies. As we think about building back better in our offices, we need to make sure we do not exacerbate inequalities or forget about the needs of those who are entirely based on site. We have seen some great construction industry leadership and collaboration in this area, and I hope that this heralds a new era when we focus on wellbeing on-site as well as at head office.
Now, I really look forward to the days I go into the office. But I recognise I am in a fortunate position where I have choice and flexibility. If we build the workplaces of the near future thoughtfully, sustainably and with people experience and wellbeing at the heart we can extend that choice and flexibility to more employees, wherever they may be, than ever before.
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Mark Williams 23 May 2023
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