Future offices – The field is open

August 2021

The future of the office has been called into question many times this year. However, what now seems a more pertinent question (or questions !) is not whether there will be an office but where that office will be and how the look and feel of such a space might change for most of us in the near future…

Highly populated, City offices appear to have lost their appeal post-Covid 19. Employers and employees have recognized that the necessity of using lifts and busy corridors, along with the discomfort of being crammed into public transport, is a big ‘no no’ right now.

Teams still want to come together and connect but there’s a definite choice to be made regarding how that will be done in the future. This choice encompasses environment and location. The opportunity for change has presented itself and is being considered by many employers and company owners.

The future of the workplace is primed for an overhaul.

What precipitates this change

The Guardian recently posed the question – what will replace the office block?  Noting that technology means we can now work pretty much anywhere, the article points out that, although there was an assumption, during the first lockdown, that we would return to pre-pandemic conditions eventually, that assumption has now evaporated. Things didn’t go back to normal; a second lockdown occurred and, at the time of writing, there is still the danger that a third lockdown might be imposed after Christmas and into the New Year.

There is no going back to normal any time soon.

Since Spring, surveys have consistently revealed that there is no appetite for a full return, with just seven per cent wanting to return to 5-day a week office hubs, according to a YouGov poll.

Interestingly, the Guardian article suggests that the office blocks in London and other cities, with falling rents, might now attract other creative and leisure activities, which could make them more inclusive and welcoming, overall.

Although many of us have had to do it, it’s unlikely that it is sustainable for two adults to work from home permanently, especially where young children are involved. The option for an office is needed – the question is where and in what form.

In the City

As indicated above, it’s been forecast that some of the main City Centre office blocks will remain empty. Surveys point towards people wanting to work from home for a proportion of the working week, with the aim of embracing a more flexible style of working.

Our role as office consultant means that we have prepared for this, envisioning a future workplace built around Freedom Working, which will encompass fresh thinking and new solutions. Workers are unlikely to inhabit work spaces in the same way and we want to acknowledge and address the changing need that must be reflected in any future design offering.

Moving forward, City Centres are less likely to be the natural habitat of the office worker. With a trend for flexible working and less bodies on the ground, the smaller office can reside anywhere – whether that may be the suburbs or an alternative, less corporate and more quirky City address.

The general shared perception appears to be that offices will be smaller but of a higher quality – be that trendy City Centre, quirky spaces and locations or basing teams across a selection of suburban addresses, including coworking spaces, depending on the need.

Contemplating the suburbs

Post-lockdown, society has reintroduced itself to community, which means that  a lot of people are happier working closer to home. Suburban spaces definitely offer less stress, ample parking, and, arguably, better accessibility – as long as your commute involves a car or bike.

Losing the big commute was one of the major bonuses of working from home for the majority. Nobody is eager to return to the unreliability of public transport, the trudge between stop points and stations and the general unpleasantness of so many bodies forced into a contained space that is an inevitability of City Centre rush hour.

In terms of co-working or serviced spaces in the suburbs, there’s an element of flexibility which may sit well for some SMEs in what are likely to be uncertain times. There’s a renewed attraction to the idea of being able to easily adapt the workplace set up, for a start, without the rigidity of the fixed lease anchoring you down.

Another major benefit of the out of town location has to be the rent. Always cheaper than the City, the cost-saving that a move to the suburbs would initiate is bound to be substantial as we all face potentially tricky financial times.

Taking the opportunity for change

Rethinking scale and size of the office presents a chance to rethink the type of office you want, full stop. If you want to stay in town or in the City, you can go from modern to ‘defurb’ and seek out heritage interiors and buildings that have some form of history, rather than opting for contemporary blocks.

Based on the exposure and enhancement of a building’s original features, a defurb transforms office space, exposing and enhancing a building’s original features and stepping away from the corporate look of suspended ceilings, white walls and blue carpets. Besides reuniting a building with its original form, it also provides a strong sense of identity. Given that the feeling of belonging is likely to be one of the major pulls of those who want to come into the office, this particular facet should now take on greater significance.

In fact, good office design is likely to be recognized and demanded more than ever before. Posing as a mark of style and good taste, it will become more relevant to a company’s choices. A building’s buzz and energy will be part of the exercise to draw staff in, providing the main attraction. Canvasses laid bare, the older, industrial buildings are ripe for reinvention and have the added bonus of being airy and light, with bigger windows which allow for more natural light.

Such buildings – old mills, warehouses and factories with their legacy of hard toil – have already been repurposed as commercial venues in areas including Manchester’s Northern Quarter, the Docks in Liverpool, the Lace Market in Nottingham, locations such as Shoreditch in London and Sheffield’s Kelham Island.

Pre-Covid, many companies’ choices of office were governed by their size and sector, hence the more artisan buildings tended to be populated by media and tech bods. Now, we can reinvent our physical offices to suit ourselves, choosing interiors that reflect our brand and how we want to be perceived. This means that landlords may find that their potential customer base has expanded rather than shrunk as their properties attract a wider, all-encompassing commercial market and other sectors get a foot through the door.