Covid-19 is permanently reshaping how and where we work, and the implications are significant for all whose livelihoods are derived from the commercial real estate sector.
Following the most recent partial lifting of Covid-19-related restrictions here in Melbourne one thing is certain: things are not about to ‘snap back’ anytime soon. Despite some misplaced optimism in the early days of the pandemic and talks of ‘V-Shaped’ recoveries and ‘silver bullet’ vaccines, we now know Covid-19, and the measures put in place to control it, will shape our work and home lives for years to come.
As a building contractor working predominantly in the office fit-out space, it is apparent that how we design, build and manage work environments will change. In fact, we may look back on the pandemic as a transformative event in the development of workplace design and culture. Whether we are builders, architects, interior designers, facility managers, landlords or investors, our understanding of how the pandemic will shape a ‘Covid-Normal’ workplace will help us plan for and adapt to these changes.
With this in mind, it seems an appropriate time to share some thoughts on how we can expect workplaces to change both now and into the future.
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, there was a trend in office design towards more collaborative spaces that provided flexibility and fostered a workplace culture aligned with brand ideals and identity. We saw this start with open-plan office design and in more recent times activity-based working and the ‘hot desk’.
The obvious assumption here when faced with the ongoing need to reduce the threat of infection is to walk back these design trends and start installing more walls and partitions to separate employees. Undoubtedly there will be some siloing of different departments and management levels to limit spread if an outbreak occurs, but separating staff is counterintuitive to the purpose of a shared centralised workspace. By far the most effective way to prevent the spread of Covid-19 is for all employees, where possible, to work from home. However, the office environment is important as it allows employees to socialise, teach, share ideas and experiences, and collaborate.
It is also important on a psychological level as connection to work colleagues and a workplace culture offers a sense of identity and belonging, which we know is important from a mental health perspective.
The optimal approach to managing a Covid-Normal workspace could well involve enabling employees to work from home when a task calls for intense focus coupled with time spent in the office to conduct meetings and team-based assignments. If employees are able to carry out some of their work from home, more space in the office can be given over to communal spaces to allow for more effective social distancing.
While this approach is desirable, many companies may well find financial pressures could necessitate they scale down their office size. This will be particularly attractive when a majority of employees are still being either forced or encouraged to work from home.
At St Ferrer, we’ve already seen this start to happen. I recently wrote an article about how businesses can best go about returning their office space ‘back to base’ on account of the number of businesses we’ve had approach us for help with this. Whether or not businesses can afford to maintain an existing floor plate for a reduced number of onsite workers, there are still a number of ways in which we’ll likely see workplaces adapt for Covid-Normal.
As staff returns to workplaces, businesses will want to take measures to minimise the chance of infection. Of course, management will want to protect employees from becoming sick, but there are also legal considerations around duty of care, not to mention the PR implications of being associated with a cluster. These factors will underpin spending on measures necessary to reduce infection.
One physical change to workplaces we’re likely to see is an increase in contactless devices and fixtures such as doors, taps, lights and bins. It’s also likely we’ll see an uptake of Internet of Things (IoT) technology. We’ve seen a number of workplaces around the world really embracing IoT and develop apps to allow employees to perform numerous tasks within a workplace, such as summon elevators or control cooling, heating and lighting using their smartphones. It is likely Covie-19 will highlight the many benefits of these IoT systems.
The dark clouds of this pandemic will cast a shadow over business here in Australia for years to come. But for those who can weather the storm, these clouds have a silver lining. We’re likely to see a shift in the balance of power between landlords and tenants as some businesses fold and others downscale their office space, both to save costs and also recalibrate for remote working. The result will be less congestion on the roads and public transport as fewer people enter the city each day. This may hold true also for workplaces that could benefit from additional space to allow for more effective social distancing, but also increased socialisations and collaboration. While there will be more challenges ahead, we will no doubt see some business emerge at the other end with safer, more productive and more humanistic workspaces.