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 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.
In truth, neither the office nor the home office is the superior place to work. Contrary to what the headlines 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 between their homes and their workplaces, rather than solely working from one or the other.
Clearly, flexible working is the answer, but unfortunately, there is no blueprint for how this should be done. Instead, every organisation, team and employee will have to decide for themselves what is the optimum mix of working from home, the office or another location.
There are also likely to be adjustments to our understanding of the effectiveness of remote working. Changes in productivity 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 time 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 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.