The workplace will never be the same again: why we are living through the biggest work from home experiment ever and what happens next?

Last week, the BBC speculated what the current situation would have looked like, should these circumstances have happened 15 years ago.

Whilst 2005 still feels relatively recent, this is a world which had limited broadband, sparse Skype capability and limited social networking tools. Working from home still felt like a privilege, almost something to be envious of. Whilst the technology was there, clearly something drastic needed to happen to kick-start working from home to the masses.

Then along came Covid-19. Shops deserted, offices left deathly silent except for the aircon clicking on and off, city centres have found themselves effectively Chernobylised. Predictably, the question is now being asked, as has been repeatedly for decades: what is the future of the office?

Proptech speaker Antony Slumbers reminds us, businesses don’t want an office, they want a productive workforce. Such sweeping statements are dangerous, even if I think it is mostly accurate but is it even possible to diagnose a non-productive workforce? Remote working has been held back by traditional fears including bosses’ visions of employees slacking off at home and the stunting of ideas from reduced water-cooler conversation. Perhaps what they underestimate is the role in creating the right social environment for remote working to flourish.

One of the most important things is for employees and employers to understand that ‘we’re all in this together and have shared responsibilities’ to make remote work productive.”

Rita Selvaggi, ActivTrak CEO (Forbes)

We must take a positive approach and there is reason to be cheerful. Cutting through the deluge of negative press every morning, one thing is now constant: the economy is adapting to remote working. There will be long term benefits to productivity and hopefully, happiness. Many people are working with the help of conferencing, saving on time, money and the environmental impacts of travel. Collaboration inside and outside organisations is being catalysed by technologies like Slack and Microsoft Teams.

However, these new tools can’t make remote working a success on their own. Kids make it tough. No dedicated office makes it impossible to focus. Facilitating group conversation can be clunky and it’s important to make sure workers feel they are getting transparency and a high level of information to give them the confidence to work autonomously and self-motivate.

Perhaps the post Covid-19 workspace may be much the same as we have been imagining for a while, including:

Ever increasing flexible working, the end of the traditional 9-5 week and weekend work becoming more socially accepted.

Coworking as we know it, is probably dead. Many speculated that rent-a-desk will be extremely volatile in a recession and they have been proven right. And we’re not in a recession yet. There is an unfortunate irony in that coworking, the crowned ‘disruptor’, is being spectacularly disrupted by the revolution of working from home

Space as a service isn’t dead. Take all the best bits of WeWork; community, service and the free beer and add in some traditional property elements – could this be the future? Coworking spaces need to realise that closer alignment to traditional real estate principles is needed. For those reluctant to do this, the franchise model is an option. If you enjoy disastrous takes on coworking, I highly recommend taking a look at Jeremy Bamberg’s article here.

Will landlords continue to hold all the cards when tenants are demanding further flexibility in their leases? Will tenants be comfortable signing up to 10-year leases given the fresh economic turmoil and the events of 2008 still fresh in their minds? Tenants will have to make up their own minds whether the burden of a long lease is worth the benefit of having a ‘cool’, well located office to attract talent.

For real estate, change is being rapidly forced. On the occupier/employer perspective, many still have an opportunity to resist these changes and that’s okay. Offering staff flexibility and remote working may be not be a priority for all employers but their competitors may take a different view.

Rather than Covid-19 being a sudden change to work as we know it, I think it will merely speed up changes in the workplace that have been gathering momentum for the last twenty years.

Tom @ HBD Manchester