Given many companies are now realising that getting work done elsewhere is possible, will we ever go back to the office?
At the time of writing, I am currently in my final day in Korean government quarantine. Given I have already tested negative for the coronavirus, aside from a forced period of detox (and hopefully the associated weight loss), the primary benefit of my sojourn in the care of the Korean authorities is that I have had plenty of time to think about a return to the workplace and what that might look like. Over the last month or so, I have been asked multiple times about this topic.
It is true that COVID-19 has forced many firms into implementing a digital transformation before they were necessarily ready to do so and are now realising that staff working remotely is possible. Tech giants such as Twitter and Facebook have gone further and publicly stated that employees can continue to work from home indefinitely after lock down so, naturally, other companies are also contemplating their future office requirements.
So, is this the beginning of the end of the corporate office?
In short, no. Whilst some companies may conclude that they do not need to operate such large offices, I do not think they will do away with them altogether.
Obviously, differences will apply across regions but, in Asia, the concept of “Working from Home” (WFH) for example, whilst currently mandated by various governments because of the ongoing pandemic, will not work as a long-term solution across the workforce as a whole.
In the more densely populated markets with sky-high residential prices and several generations often cohabiting in small apartments, the concept of a home office, or even somewhere quiet where you can work uninterrupted by children or family, isn’t realistic. Whilst more conservative or traditional companies who would never have previously considered WFH may state that this forced experiment has been a big success, I do not see many closing their offices. Indeed, some have mentioned to me that they may need more space in order to comply with social distancing.
Isn't commercial real estate all about location, location location?
Contingency, resiliency, and remote working mean it’s now multiple locations.
One of the few positive outcomes from the current situation, which I think will continue, is that going forward many firms will provide their employees with more choice in how and where they work, which will improve work-life balance. Those who don’t need to (or don’t want to) commute every day could potentially save hundreds of hours each year which could be spent with family, for example, avoiding the disruption of commuting to both their home and workplace.
The concept of work will quite rightly shift from work as a destination to work as an activity (shouldn’t this have been the case all along?) – I can see WFH being replaced with work from anywhere, at least for some roles, through clouded enterprise connectivity, with the central office being one of the work locations on offer. Co-working operators may be one of the major beneficiaries of this as decentralized drop-in spaces, or city campus models, become more widely adopted.
In terms of office design post-COVID, we are likely to see a shift from the trend of the last few years of pushing to make real estate more efficient (i.e. packing more people in) to a renewed focus on employee safety and wellbeing – some even talk about hiring a Chief Wellness Officer to oversee this transformation. In the short-term, staff will likely be brought back in phases and a basic retro-fit or restack may take place. Initially for many this may just involve removing chairs and putting up physical distancing partitions. This will eventually lead to more wholesale changes in the way that workspaces are used and fitted out, with a major focus on adaptability, safe turnaround of shared spaces, and being able to physically move and reconfigure workstations as needed. There’s no doubt that technology will be at the centre of future workplace design.
In Asia, there is perhaps less fear around returning to the office. This is largely down to one of the legacies left behind by both SARS (2003) and MERS (2015). Namely, that since then, there is some degree of ‘germaphobia’ built into all of us. I mean this in a very positive way. In many Asian cities including Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore, offices, lift buttons, touch points and public transport are all regularly sanitised throughout the workday. In many offices, including our own, even before COVID-19, if someone had a cold or cough, they were encouraged to wear a face mask so as not to pass anything on to anyone else.
I think this heightened germ awareness, as well as the recent memory of how we needed to behave during other pandemics, are the two primary reasons that many Asian countries were able to control the spread of the virus faster, with the population remaining calm. In many cases the population was able to take action by choosing to wear masks and implement social distancing voluntarily, even before the government issued guidelines.
Why will we return to the office?
Colliers recently carried out a survey of our clients from across the globe to understand their appetite for continuing to work from home post COVID-19. From the APAC dataset, 82% of respondents stated that they want to continue to work from home at least one day a week. This can be attributed to a desire for more flexibility and better work-life balance.
Most interestingly though, 0% stated that they wanted to WFH full-time.
Aside from the sharing of knowledge, skills and experience, as well as an office helping to foster company culture and provide the right technology to do your job, the number one reason that was given for a return to the office was the people. I don’t think this is surprising, we are social creatures after all.
Technology can enable communication and collaboration, but I don’t think it can ever replace the daily engagement and camaraderie you get from the effortless, unscheduled interactions you have when you work in the same place as someone.
During my time in quarantine, I have deliberately filled my days with video calls. These calls (and a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle) have kept me sane, but personally speaking, having not seen another human being face to face for over a fortnight, I cannot wait to get back to the office!
I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the "great return" as well as how you have got on working from home, so please feel free to contact me or reach out to me directly with any feedback or questions you may have.