What future does the post-Covid era hold for offices?

At the end of lockdown, it became clear that there won’t be a return to the way things used to be any time soon. Firstly, advice on how to avoid the virus is focused on the long term, because Covid-19 is set to be an issue for some considerable time. Secondly, many companies have discovered the advantages of their employees working from home. In short, the distinction between our homes and our places of work has rapidly been disrupted – for good. A look at the impact on office buildings.

Covid has had a drastic impact on our way of working. Although only a minority of employees used to regularly work from home before the pandemic (less than 15% in Western Europe and less than 10% in France and Belgium), this way of working became widespread overnight for all tertiary roles.

Employees were taken by surprise and had to learn how to turn their living space into a multifunctional space. As mentioned in a previous article, this will certainly have an impact on residential property.

But after a period of adjustment, a large majority of those who now work from home have embraced the situation. In all surveys, they have said that they are relieved that they no longer have to waste their time in traffic jams or on public transport. Today, few employees are keen to go back to working in the office five days a week, as they did before.

In view of this “new normal”, what alternatives are companies considering?

 

1. Keeping offices but changing their layout

We see two scenarios here:

  • Companies which want their employees to return en masse should retain all of their office space. This will be particularly important, given that they will have to comply with new requirements which will involve the provision of a minimum surface area per employee. For the time being, say goodbye to open-plan spaces, which are often overrun with people, and goodbye to hot-desking.
  • Other companies are planning to adapt their office space to their new role: offices should provide more than just a workstation (you can spend the whole day in front of your PC at home, after all), functioning instead as a “hub”, where employees can meet up and exchange ideas.
    • These companies intend to develop new spaces for discussions and meetings, both large and small, both formal and informal.
    • They will also have to provide “silent bubbles” where employees can work quietly between meetings. This period of working from home has proved that employees can concentrate much better without having to put up with their colleagues’ distracting noises and constant interruptions, something which employees have long complained about and which has often been ignored.
    • Consequently, companies are planning to develop more spaces in which their employees can relax and take a break, a real benefit compared to working from home.

In both cases, companies will have to encourage employees to travel to work and give them a reason to do so. This will involve:

  • providing a welcoming, inspiring and practical workplace, with greater attention to design to create a space which is visually appealing, rather than merely functional.
  • more widespread use of plants and greenery. We don’t mean dotting three potted plants around the office: we’re talking about being bold, using more natural materials and creating green walls, shady terraces in real gardens, etc. As with shopping centres, the challenge is to create a new identity for workplaces and to develop a seamless link between indoor and outdoor spaces.
  • better accessibility, particularly when it comes to environmentally friendly transport.

Of course, this approach will not help to reduce costs – quite the contrary. Yet this issue is sure to be a key concern for companies in the post-Covid era. The following solutions offer cost-effective options.

 

2. Finding a solution to reduce rental costs

Rental costs are a significant outgoing for most companies. The traditional lease has become an onerous commitment, particularly when companies are finding themselves with half-empty premises. Inevitably, the traditional lease will be replaced by other more flexible property solutions, with savings in the millions for some large companies.

In France, BNP Paribas Real Estate has launched Now Connected, a new property service which meets two very different needs. Aimed at companies which are downsizing their office space (something which is inevitable in the post-Covid era), this service:

  • enables companies with overly large premises to rent out or sublet unoccupied space. The revenue this generates helps them to reduce their own costs and may even prevent them from having to move offices.
  • provides companies which are looking for office space with a more flexible rental package.

BNP Paribas Real Estate will work with Now Coworking, a major French operator of coworking spaces, to manage these rented premises.

Given that any potential solution will require more flexibility, we are convinced that a service like this has a bright future.

 

3. Focusing on 100% flexible workstations

We’ve already mentioned the success of working from home. However, it’s not a dream situation for everyone. Some people don’t have a suitable space in which to work from home, while others struggle with the fact that there is no longer any separation between the personal and the professional environment.
A solution which is infinitely flexible, both in terms of use and location? Satellite offices in coworking spaces.

That’s right, the very same coworking spaces which were doing so well before coronavirus and which have been hard hit by the pandemic. Because of their flexible contracts, workers abandoned coworking spaces overnight.

However, we are convinced that this slowdown in their activity is merely temporary. Used mainly by freelance workers and start-ups, coworking spaces which survived the pandemic could see the arrival of new clientele. After all, coworking spaces offer several benefits:

  • As we have already mentioned, many companies plan to redevelop their offices to respond to this new reality. However, this can’t happen overnight and the majority of companies will not be ready to welcome all members of staff back any time soon. Coworking spaces are a good temporary solution.
  • With the success of working from home, an increasing number of companies are planning to downsize their office space permanently. They could rent additional coworking spaces in different places for their employees. There could even be “clusters” of employees in these satellite offices, grouped together in the most conveniently located coworking space.
  • Coworking spaces provide an all-inclusive service which offers real savings, from coffee machines to cleaning costs and receptionists’ services. With fixed monthly costs, there are no nasty surprises and it’s easy to control costs.

 

Conclusion

In the future, employees may be able to choose from an à la carte menu of workspaces: working at home, in the company’s head office or in a coworking space. The various advantages of these different options could be combined. Whatever happens, flexibility will be key.

However, if coworking spaces are to live up to their new role as a decentralised workplace, more shared offices will need to be developed outside major cities.

This leads us to one of our favourite topics: diversity in urban and suburban planning, something which is essential if these areas are to thrive. We have long recommended a mixture of businesses, offices and homes when it comes to property development projects (such as the new Millennium project in Luxembourg). A shopping centre will always be busier if it’s close to people’s homes. Commuting is also a more appealing prospect when employees can easily run errands or go to the gym after work in the immediate vicinity of their offices. The converse: a neighbourhood which focuses solely on one of these three areas inevitably becomes either a dormitory town or a ghost town in the evenings and at the weekends.

 

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