Offices after coronavirus – “let’s temper the rhetoric and hyperbole with a little bit of realism”

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What will offices look like after the pandemic? Here’s what Unispace global strategy director Albert De Plazaola said when he spoke to The Fifth Estate from San Francisco on Tuesday.


Albert De Plazaola says there’s really no way of knowing what will happen in the next six to 12 months in ofices yet that’s the kind of question clients are increasingly asking of his global design firm, you’d imagine this is with some trepidation, given the widespread predictions that many people will expect to work at least part of the time from home and that others will be nervous about continuing risks of contamination.

According to De Plazaola the first moves back to the office are likely to be tactical, with safety a prime concern.

Employees will likely come back gradually so that facility managers can implement social distancing appropriately. Some might not make it back into the office at all after finding themselves happier and more productive working remotely.

The prospect of having fewer people in the office will likely be seized by chief financial officers looking for significant savings  on real estate in a financially-constrained time, De Plazaola suspects.

There will likely be a lot of scenario modelling over the first few months of returning to the office to strike the right balance between employee safety, productivity and real estate savings.

Businesses already geared for remote working, such as the more progressive tech companies, are more likely to take advantage of the swing to working from home.

By contrast, more conservative companies in professional services, which have found the shift extremely disruptive, may or may not embrace the change on the other side.

It also comes down to the individual. Young workers at the beginning of their career might be busting to return workplace where they can interact with their peers and mentors, De Plazaola says. Workers further into their careers or with families might appreciate eliminated commute times and fewer distractions from coworkers.

De Plazaola warns of overestimating the swing to remote working.

“I was having these same conversations back during the Global Financial Crisis when people were trying to save money on capital expenditure, labour and real estate.

“Strategists sold this concept of people being as productive at home as in the workplace, so this meant companies didn’t need a workplace.

“But within two years out of the GFC companies were renting more commercial real estate than ever before.”

He says it’s important to “temper the rhetoric and hyperbole with a little bit of realism” and recognise that the world has been through these cycles before.

What will likely happen is the recognition, even in more conservative workplaces, that the home is another workspace where “you can get things done”.

This could trigger a shift in how middle managers assess employees, moving from “presenteeism” to more performance-based metrics. But with reports that some businesses are using software to ensure employees are at their computers, perhaps presenteeism will stick around.

Technology can help but it comes at a price

The role of technology will be interesting. Managing social distancing rules will mean only so many people can be in the building at once to avoid long lines for lifts and entry into other high traffic areas.

As a result, you might see employees reserving a spot on their floor using a software system that accounts for occupancy and once it hits a safe maximum will stop take reservations.

The use of technology to mitigate coronavirus concerns could also create a host of new privacy issues. For example, companies might employ surveillance technology to ensure that people aren’t flouting social distancing rules in meetings.

Unispace global strategy director Albert De Plazaola

De Plazaola says there will need to be an ongoing balancing act to manage both civil liberties and public safety.

Signs, floor markers and roped-off kitchenettes

Other low-tech tools building managers and tenants will potentially employ will be signs and markings to indicate “one way traffic”.

Shared kitchens and kitchenettes will likely remain off limits for some time.

He also won’t be surprised if liability concerns drive a lot of decision making in companies. One company he’s spoken to is not supplying employees with masks and gloves but getting them to bring their own in the event company-supplied equipment fails.

Proof of cleanliness needed for hot desking and coworking to work

Workplace trends like hot desking are likely to come under review. De Plazaola suspects the big problem will be perception and employers will need to go to great lengths to prove hygiene standards are high. Something like the little strips of paper seen in cleaned hotel toilets could be used to denote a clean desk, he offers as a suggestion.

Co working will face similar challenges. Although De Plazaola hesitates to speculate on the future of co working it might recover as long as operators can demonstrate that workplaces can be sanitised for daily work.

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