By Harry Fenner, CEO, Navana Property Group
There is a debate raging on about the future of office spaces.
There are many who want to return to how things were, whilst others claim the modern office is never to return. Huge companies across the globe have been following the likes of Fujitsu, Siemens and Twitter in saying their workforces can work from home forever.
These dramatic moves have had rippling effects, with many taking them as an indication that the office is now dead.
Granted, there are myriad benefits to working from home. Employees benefit from a more flexible working style and are not geographically restricted, employers pay less overheads and there is a reduction in pollution levels too.
Yet there is tremendous value to be had from dedicated office spaces. Face to face interaction is invaluable for all industries, for collaboration, relationship building and ease of access to support.
Something the pandemic has also shown is that offices act as a democratiser, enabling all staff to have the option of a comfortable, high-functioning working environment, when this isn’t always true for everyone’s home set-up.
Too often in today’s world, we exhaust ourselves in a constant battle between two extremes, in which there is no middle ground. This is exactly how the working environment debate has played out.
Yet there a clear-cut third group in this debate, one which will ultimately prove the other two wrong.
Neither the office nor the home office is the superior place to work. Contrary to what the headlines may lead us to believe, actually, the majority of people are hoping to be able to adopt a blended approach going forward.
A survey by the British Council for Offices found employees at all levels, from executives (62%) to trainees (58%), intend or hope to divide their time in future between their homes and their workplaces.
These figures come in stark contrast to the mere 15% who intend to work exclusively at home and the 30% who wish to return to the office five days a week.
Clearly, flexible working is the answer, but unfortunately, there is no blueprint for how this should be done. Instead, every organisation, team and ultimately every employee will have to decide for themselves what is the optimum mix of working from home, the office or another location. As circumstances change over time, they will have to reassess their answer again and again.
There are also likely to be adjustments to our understanding of the effectiveness of remote working. Changes in perceived productivity/performance in 2020 were driven by several forces and it is hard to unpick them.
To what extent, for example, did productivity increase with employees acutely aware of the precarious job market?
Secondly, collaboration may have only remained strong because teams were already bonded from their times in the office. This bond may weaken as workforces change and employees have to cooperate over digital platforms with comparative strangers.
In summary, the working model is set to evolve time and time again in the years to come. So what does this mean for investors?
Firstly, that the office is alive, not dead. After all, we have had the technology to be able to work from any location for decades, but that hasn’t stopped businesses from buying or leasing space.
Secondly, that any forecasts about the future of the office should be treated with caution. We are still in the midst of the pandemic, so all predictions are completely speculative, as most users are still in the process of defining their future office space requirements.
For investors, the task now is to find out what kind of office space users want in the future and how their needs have and will continue to change.
The answer is obvious – talk to your occupiers. This is the only way to clarify their answers to these questions and ultimately discover the future of the office.Property