The office isn’t dead.
But it will look very different as the country licks its wounds and emerges, blinking, from a coronavirus lockdown that is likely to change the property industry forever.
That’s the view of industry leaders in Birmingham who are now facing the prospect of having to throw out the rule book when it comes to office design and management in order to meet staff’s expectations of how a modern, forward-thinking work environment should look in the 21st century.
Since the coronavirus lockdown took hold at the end of March, millions of office workers have decamped to their kitchen tables and back bedrooms and discovered that, maybe, this working from home malarkey is not so bad after all.
The long-term prospect of ditching regular, sweaty commutes on public transport for working at home in peace, without having to juggle childcare and homeschooling issues, may make the office seem like a relic from a dark and distant past which should only be visited when absolutely necessary.
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Paul Bassi, one of Birmingham’s most prominent commercial property landlords and agents through his companies Real Estate Investors and Bond Wolfe, is unsurprisingly bullish about the naysayers who see covid-19 as the beginning of the end for the traditional office.
He told BusinessLive he did not “go with the notion” that the office would become less important, with staff keen to return to the workplace community after weeks stuck in the spare bedroom.
“Video calls have enabled businesses to continue but remote working is not the way forward for all,” he said.
“The key reason is you cannot build a culture, a work ethic and teamwork without regular contact in the office.
“Where we will see change is in less demand for large floor plates and more demand for smaller offices.”
He said that travel had become a big factor in people’s lives with video calling rendering journeys for some face-to-face meetings obsolete while other businesses would question whether they needed to be in city centres.
“We will see an increase in demand for space in satellite towns such as Bromsgrove and Tamworth where people live locally and can cut their commute drastically,” he added.
Social distancing has meant the layout and design of offices will have to be adapted to enable colleagues to remain two metres apart when they return to work.
Dav Bansal, a partner at Birmingham practice Glenn Howells Architects, believes the model for workspaces will change significantly.
“There is a lot of talk on the detail of how we build and design for pressing issues of social distancing, however we should focus on how we have improved our behaviour to be more responsible and drive down our carbon footprint,” he said.
“In some way, we have not changed direction but changed gear to move more quickly towards a better world.
“The flexibility to work from anywhere and be connected to nature and public spaces for the benefit of our wellbeing will inform the shape and structure of our businesses.
“The social boundaries that once existed between home and work have finally broken down to encourage a more balanced lifestyle.
“We should not forget the importance of workspaces as interacting and engaging hubs.
“The proximity to open green spaces, flooding of natural daylight and naturally vented spaces will become the norm for workspaces so that we have the same quality of life and comfort as in our own homes.”
Among those likely to be wringing their hands nervously are the plethora of commercial property agencies in Birmingham tasked with finding tenants for vacant office space by nervous landlords keen to see a return on their investment.
Charles Toogood is one such man, as managing director for national offices with property agency Avison Young in Birmingham.
He said changes to workplaces were inevitable following the coronavirus pandemic but refused to write off the office altogether, saying there was plenty of life left in it yet.
“In the short term, occupation densities are likely to reduce, driven by increased health and safety measures, new seating policy, changing behaviours and the proven value of video calls in place of physical meetings,” he said.
“Longer term, it is unlikely we will see a wholesale reduction in workspace occupation levels, due to the fact home working is only viable for a small proportion.
“Real social interaction is sorely missed and maintaining morale, culture and team spirit is difficult remotely, with more junior staff missing training and development opportunities and the chance to learn the soft skills required of many roles.”
He predicted that a surplus of office space could return to the market but Avison Young’s own research into cities outside the capital suggested locations such as Birmingham would enjoy an element of resilience during and after the pandemic.
Mr Toogood added: “While some occupiers may seek to reduce their office headcount by introducing increased agile working and shift patterns, any drop in the number of desks occupied looks to be offset by the need to maintain greater social distancing, with little appetite for hot-desking.
“We expect further growth in the serviced office sector as companies seek to manage and flex their spatial needs.”
Phil Crowther is operations director and head of the Midlands with fit out and refurbishment firm Willmott Dixon Interiors whose current roster of projects include the major renovation of Wolverhampton’s Civic Hall.
He said the world needed a catalyst for change and wondered how many previously cynical chief executives were now seeing the personal and financial benefits of home working.
“Does this mean that the office is dead? The short answer is ‘no’,” he told BusinessLive.
“We’ve all played our part in a global experiment of homeworking and, while many of us have been able to work efficiently from home, others have had to use their kitchen table or sofa and manage the demands of childcare.
“Right now, we’re seeing businesses under pressure to get things up and running as soon as possible and people are understandably taking a long, hard look at post covid-19 workplace design.
“Some businesses have been looking into more flexible working for years.
“Working from home has enabled businesses to fully embrace their people’s potential and utilise them in a much more efficient way.
“It will lead to better mentoring and coaching with workplaces that recognise and nurture talent. And that’s something we should all be excited about.”