Commentary by Monika Rajska-Wolińska, Managing Partner of Colliers International in Poland
When the pandemic was announced in mid-March in Poland, companies had to switch to home office overnight. Remote working has become the dominant model of functioning in most companies in our country and worldwide. Many organisations still operate in it today. However, there are some doubts as to whether working from home is really a good solution in the long run.
Mass remote working has led us to ask ourselves questions about the significance of office space. The widespread use of mobile technologies means that employees are no longer tied to a single location, and the lockdown has taught everyone a new way of working. There is certainly no return to typical office work from 9 to 5, five days a week, but the impact of total virtualisation of work and business contacts on team’s creativity and morale is debatable primarily because the home office offers far less opportunities to interact and make contacts with colleagues.
Recent studies also seem to prove this opinion. Working from home on such a large scale as we have been dealing with over the last six months is an experiment on an unprecedented scale, which has come under the spotlight of many scientists. Already a few years ago, Professor Timothy Golden, a psychologist and coordinator of business and organisational management at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, argued in his research that remote working causes social and professional isolation, less opportunities to exchange information and the blurring of boundaries between professional and personal life. On the one hand, family and social responsibilities can easily appear during working hours, but research shows that it is more often professional responsibilities that come into private life. Experts say that without setting firm boundaries, employees can experience chronic fatigue and rapid burn-out.
Relationship with the team is irreplaceable
Unfortunately, remote working brings with it risks and total virtualisation of business contacts is not a good idea because we lose everything that is difficult to recreate in virtual space, such as the ad hoc exchange of information, the spark of creativity that comes from the fact that people sit together in one space and establish relationships with each other, not only in the strictly business dimension, but also know each other as people, laugh together, complain together - a bond is built. This relationship translates into the business effectiveness of a given team and its ability to react to various types of problems as well as the level of innovation and creativity the team is able to generate.
Before the pandemic I was in the office very often, because the contact with people gives me energy and at the same time drives the employees to act when they see that the boss is present and interested in what they are doing. This close relationship builds a sense of community, which is extremely important in our culture. In the face of remote working, all we have left is virtual contact. And although in the 21st century technological solutions allow for a lot, video conferencing will never replace face-to-face meetings.
In order to maintain the team spirit and to prevent the feeling of isolation, at the beginning of the lockdown we organised regular, daily short meetings where we shared our emotions and experiences. When we got a little used to the situation, this time became a platform for exchanging knowledge and finally talking about business and its future in a changing world. Listening to the team's feelings was as important as taking care of the business side. Thanks to the commitment of our managers and employees, we took care of our well-being, nurtured relationships and were able to support ourselves during this difficult period. This mechanism stayed with us, with time only the goals and issues raised changed.
Office in the Post-Covid reality
Since the pandemic has shown that we can work effectively from home, a garden or a café, the question could be asked as to why we need offices? First and foremost for our health - mental and physical. They are an opportunity for us to interact, a source of inspiration, they help to distinguish between the professional and private worlds, and our desk in the office is usually much more ergonomic than the one at home.
According to a survey conducted by Colliers, most people would like to work remotely 1-2 days a week, but 38% of those surveyed already experience social isolation. Employees declared that in the current situation (total or mostly remote working) they lack meetings with co-workers, spontaneous coffee conversations and a clear distinction between professional and personal life. This is just one of the evidence that we need an office environment.
The offices of the future will develop towards human-centered places, i.e. creating solutions focused on people, their health and wellbeing. They will offer more than just a desk - they will be technologically advanced to adapt to the needs of employees and offer greater flexibility.
Flexibility is the key
The unpredictability of business cycles is now so high that flexibility and adaptability are becoming key aspects of a business strategy. Following this trend, Colliers International has introduced an innovative tool on the Polish market - Colliers Mobility Pass. It is a virtual platform that allows you to book coworking spaces through an easy-to-navigate smartphone application. The employer buys a subscription, thanks to which employees have access to over 5,000 locations of flexible spaces in 70 countries. Through an intuitive mobile application everyone can book a desk, private office or conference room anywhere in Poland and the world and use everything that such space offers.
Many organisations are currently focusing on generating savings, but in the future they will be willing to pay more for flexibility in order not to be bound by long term lease agreements. More and more companies will be thinking about including flex space in their business strategy. This will enable them to manage risks and costs appropriately, for example by planning some space in the traditional layout and the rest in the coworking model, depending on current needs. This has been the direction taken by western corporations a long time ago, which means that the market for flexible space has been growing much faster there than in Poland. Currently, in London flexible spaces account for over 5% of all office space, in Manhattan it is as much as 15%, and in Warsaw only 2.5%.
However, the question is how to measure the key indicators to determine whether the mode of work adopted is effective or whether we have not exaggerated with virtualisation, how to manage the time people spend in the office. All these aspects must be consciously shaped by the employer so as not to disrupt the functioning of a given organisation.
Building owners, on the other hand, will be forced to adjust their facilities more closely to the needs of their tenants. Co-working, co-living and live-work-play models are developing around the world, especially in the West. However, both tenants and building owners need to consider what changes still need to be made and how to shape this model so that it makes sense in the long term.