Offices are here to stay. Contrary to gloomy predictions about the demise of the office, the strength of the Bristol city centre office market is such that we have seen no adjustment in quoting rents, due to low vacancy rates and a diversity of sectors seeking space.
Far from seeing the demise of the office, I believe that what we are witnessing is its evolution – and the end of the five-days-a week, 9 to 5 commute.
People will continue coming in to offices, but many of them will be attending for fewer days a week to collaborate directly with colleagues, and then doing work such as writing reports at home.
COVID-19 has accelerated a move towards flexible working that was underway before the pandemic.
Already it is clear that space in the post-COVID office will be utilised differently. In part this is to ensure safe working environments and social distancing, but also because the way in which people work together in offices has changed.
Open plan offices with rows of desks assigned to individuals are being replaced by office spaces which have fewer desks which have to be booked, and more meeting rooms, breakout spaces and soft seating for collaboration.
It is reminiscent of previous operational changes in office design when corridors lined with small, individually assigned offices were replaced with open plan spaces. Some sectors embraced this more quickly than others, but in the end it happened because it was a more effective way of working.
Flexible working facilitated by new technology had been in evidence in many workplaces before COVID-19. The pandemic then served to highlight the fact that many jobs can be performed remotely. Yet as time has passed it has also become apparent that there are limitations to what can be achieved at a distance.
While technology played an invaluable functional role in maintaining productivity during lockdown, it has been unable to replace the sense of structure and the opportunities for collaboration that come from working alongside colleagues in an office. Although you can talk to someone on a video call, you miss out on the bigger picture that comes as a result of all the other conversations that are going on around you in an office, and cannot have the spontaneous exchanges which can open up new possibilities.
It is arguable that the reason why companies generally coped well with home-working during lockdown was because of professional relationships which had already been forged over time in workplaces. But this is not sustainable in the long term.
Not only do the effects of time and distance impact upon existing relationships, but also as new people are appointed they need to be with colleagues in the office in order to learn how to do the job and how to work as part of a team. In fact, an increasing number of young people are making clear that they want to join companies where they can work in offices because of the opportunities this brings.
Then there is the social aspect. I know from my own experience of the Bristol office market that companies are keen to be located in buildings near to the bars, cafes and restaurants in the city centre, because they know these attractions play an important role in employee recruitment and retention.
Sitting at home on your own and raising a glass to colleagues on a video call is all very well. But it is not the same as heading out of the office at the end of the day with colleagues and raising a glass together.
*This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Spotlight, the magazine produced by the Bristol office of Colliers International.
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About the Author
James Preece is a director in the National Offices team in Bristol, and has over 21 years’ experience of the office sector. Since joining Colliers International in Bristol in 2008, his role has included numerous disposals and acquisitions in the South West for clients ranging from large funds to private investors. Recent accomplishments include the disposal of 19,000 sq ft at Tower Wharf for Picton Capital, and the disposal of circa 30,000 sq ft for Aberdeen Standard at 1 Redcliff Street in three deals. To get in touch, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.