What’s the future of the office?

This debate is still making the rounds. Some businesses remain uncertain as to whether they will ever return to their pre-Covid office routines. I was recently reading an article which outlined that data from Google that indicate that workplace activity in cities like London, New York and San Francisco are running at half what they used to run at, before the pandemic.

From various articles out there, it seems that working fully remotely does not seem the way forward. A fully remote working arrangement seems to be off the cards for many businesses as a level of presence at the office makes it easier to monitor workers – this seems to be especially true for salaried employees (programmers, accountants etc.), whose effort is difficult to measure. The second reason for companies to move away from a full remote working arrangement is that having people working in the same office supports the unstructured exchanges of ideas. Although this is a well-established notion, there is very little researched evidence to support this claim. While research shows that unstructured interactions help people exchange information and build networks, no studies show that this increases work productivity. However, if informal meetings are an important part of the company culture, remote work can undermine it. Therefore, managers need to think carefully about what role informal interaction plays in their team and how any level of working from home will affect it.

However, although a fully remote working arrangement is becoming less popular, some combination of a hybrid work arrangement seems to be the way forward. This will means that businesses will have fewer employees at the same time in the office. This prompts the question: Should business owners and leaders start working on re-designing office spaces, based on a reduction and rationalisation of office space but higher quality office space?

Internationally the answers seems to be – Yes, as there are signs that this is actually already happening. In New York City, for example, office vacancy rates have risen 11.3% in the last year, and now stand at the highest level in 27 years.

With all the above in mind, I believe that any business leader should carefully consider the the following factors to have some proper guidance on the future of their office – not only in the size of the office space needed but also other matters like office design.

Attitude of employees: Research is indicating that while most office workers actually want to go back to an office, they only want to do that two or three days per a week – in line with the hybrid work arrangement. That suggests that providing an office will require less space than it did in the past, since it’s unlikely all employees will be in on the same days. This also suggests that the quality of the space should become more important than the size of the office space and businesses are likely to focus on smaller spaces that provide better services and amenities.

Commuting: In Malta we are blessed that everywhere is in close proximity. However then there is the traffic problem. If we have less people on the road having to go to the office everyday, it is likely to generate a big benefit for all. It also could mean something that we always aspired for but never managed. If for example I go to the office 2-3 times a week, I can arrange to run my errands that need a car, after my working time on the days I am working from home, whilst than I can choose to travel to the office on my office days using public transport.

Office design: Increasingly, office design is to gain more importance. It is likely that the best employees will be attracted attracting to offices where they can work more productively and allow them to do activities they cannot do from home – hence this is likely to require less space but the location of office features will be critical – office designs that allows office rooms to be turned swiftly into meeting rooms etc…will be more important.

Cost: A final factor in the decisions businesses need to consider about office space is Cost. Obviously offices with a smaller area should cost less. Needless to say that if this trend of smaller offices continues to pick up, landlords would be keen on accommodating their present tenants not to lose an office area being rented out, completely.

In conclusion, it is likely that some businesses will find that they do not need as much office space as they used to — and the space they do need will work better for employees if it’s designed for a hybrid working system.

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