Twenty twenty is over and the office as we know it is dead and gone. No longer will they be the obligatory workspaces of our corporate world. Instead they will be…well, we are not really sure yet. We know that the buildings will remain and organizations will use them to assemble widgets in one way or another. But the fundamental idea that has underpinned the office since the early 1900s, that a shared workplace is the only way for large, mainstream, conventional companies to get meaningful work done, has been flattened under the steamroller of COVID-19.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who has been watching the evolution of the workplace. Offices have long been by and large mandatory for large organizations. But it was never the only option. I would bet that every one of you reading this knows someone at a big corporation who has been working remotely at least a few days a week long before the pandemic. Gradually, more and more lawyers, consultants, and engineers have been spending time at their home offices. And it’s no secret that industry upstarts and entrepreneurial companies have made heavy use of remote work, whether that means out of a second bedroom or a Starbucks. That the coronavirus sounded the death knell for traditional office arrangement, but it didn’t exactly come out of left field.
Right now you’re probably thinking to yourself, “But offices are far from dead. Lots of people prefer working from them and many big companies are committed to working in-person.” And you would be right. Even companies and big and tech forward as Amazon is currently hiring for its four million-plus HQ2 in Arlington, VA. Surveys have shown that people like working from the office and that they are often more productive that way. There’s even that survey from just a few weeks ago, which found that almost half of IT leaders want their employees to come back to the office full time.
The simple act of working from a shared space (e.g. an office) is indeed not going anywhere. But the way office spaces are used from here on out will be a far cry from the way it was in the “before” times. For occupiers, this means that they have some big decisions to make. There’s a choice now that was never there before: do you cut the office expense altogether? And the results of that decision will have profound impacts on office landlords everywhere.
The experience of the last nine months shows that in many cases, for many people, working from home is often highly desirable. There are leaders that see this already, too. According to Nasdaq’s Chief technology and information officer Brad Peterson, “We do not see a return to the traditional five-day-a-week in the office likely happening again.” Remote working presents a wide range of positives that make it an attractive option for all types of businesses. Primarily, it allows recruiters to find the best candidates regardless of geography and it takes a big bite out of overhead. And here’s where that big decision comes in. Occupiers can either choose to go back to the office and satisfy the managers who think that this makes for higher employee productivity. Or they can lean into the switch and invest in other ways to maximize employee productivity with a remote-oriented approach to work.
This is where landlords come in. If the goal is to keep spaces filled and leases renewed, landlords need to find ways to make offices more attractive for occupiers, no matter where they fall on the hybrid work spectrum. Convincing occupiers that the office can be accretive to remote work rather than competitive will be the difference between boom and bust. While tenants leaping into remote work and landlords retaining office leases seem contradictory, it’s the middle-ground solution of hybrid workplaces that present the most valid alternative to complete tenant loss. Under hybrid workplace arrangements, where desks are reservable just like an Airbnb, the amenities are rich and varied, and the social networks are tangible.
What’s more, hybrid offices enable companies to allow their employees to work from home when focus work is the order of the day, while still retaining the big value proposition of the office: deep collaborative work. Real work tends to get done with specific people and measurable projects. Well designed hybrid workplaces enable that through spaces that empower diverse teams to work instead of separating them.
Landlords are now at a point where they can reconfigure their spaces and leverage hybrid focused amenities to embrace remote arrangements. As remote-centric organizations shift to focus less on measuring butts in seats and more on measuring actual outcomes, landlords will have the opportunity to upgrade their spaces to encourage high-efficiency work and not mere 9-5 presence.
Common area spaces, instead of big empty lobbies, could be filled by service providers like freelancers and contractors. Sprawling food courts can be replaced by upscale lounges and meeting rooms fit to entertain high-profile clients within the building instead of needing to venture out to a club or restaurant. And other shared amenity spaces could be remade into conferencing centers and recording studios, transforming office towers into mini-broadcasting centers where employees of any tenant have the opportunity to access professional-grade video and audio tools not available at their home.
At the end of the day the market is never wrong. Landlords have little say as to what goes on within their tenants’ suites. They can gnash their teeth about how every company needs an office but their time would probably be better spent sharpening their tools and rethinking their mousetraps. They can bemoan their smaller piece of the corporate pie or they can expand out into other ancillary services. To do this they need to design shared spaces that are in line with modern work perspectives and not counter to them. Remote work is here to stay. But the right application remote works offices might be more in demand than in the days when an office was an office and nothing more.