The Office Was Changing Before COVID-19

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There’s no shortage of conjecture amid COVID-19 about the fate of offices across the globe. The office isn’t going away, but the pandemic has accelerated an evolution of the role it serves for companies.

The latest debate is fueled by experience that many companies have had with remote work during the pandemic. In the future, there is no question that employees will have more choice regarding their work environment and some, depending on their functions, will have the option to continue working remotely. But there is a much deeper question being debated as all of this unfolds: How will the office transform to connect and engage a more widely distributed workforce? Current workforce trends and, in turn, how the office supports them, aren’t actually new. Rather, they are accelerating—under new level of scrutiny from corporate C-suite executives and boards of directors—because of the unprecedented work experience that has shaped 2020. The previous era of blind acceptance of long commutes guided by a rigid 8-5 schedule will be challenged to new degrees as we emerge from this COVID-19 era. At the same time, lessons learned over the past decade will continue to guide the future of the office. 

CBRE’s survey of clients about the “Future of the Office” confirms this reality: City centers are not likely to be overshadowed by suburban markets, and office buildings are not likely to be forsaken in favor of home offices. But flexibility will be favored over rigidity, and the physical world will face increasing competition from the digital world.

This survey, conducted in June, includes responses from 126 companies—most of them global, half of them Fortune 500.

Among the survey’s findings:

Most companies anticipate a hybrid workforce that works between the office, the home and “third places” as employees choose. Seventy percent of respondents also say they now will allow some full-time remote work in the future, up from 37 percent prior to the pandemic. The design and technology of the office to facilitate connecting a distributed workforce will become integral to this new reality. Ensuring everyone has access to a level playing field when they need it will be tricky, but achievable.

The pandemic has shifted company attitudes toward fluid work environments, with most saying they expect more use of unassigned, “free address” desks in the future. This will help better manage the demand of a hybrid workforce since permanent desks aren’t needed for every employee, given that a portion will work outside the physical office on a given day. The notion of sharing may seem at odds amid a pandemic, but in the future, it will be necessary to create an efficient use of space—with proper safety protocols—and a culture that fosters collaboration.

Some respondents anticipate the importance of the physical office decreasing slightly (41 percent) going forward. Yet others see its importance at least remaining the same, if not increasing in the future (38 percent). Many companies will need to weigh the tradeoffs between the costs of maintaining their physical offices against those of the technology and training needed to support a remote workforce. Companies that foresee offices continuing to play a central role are taking into account how offices benefit collaboration, innovation, recruiting and retaining employees, and supporting company culture.

In terms of long-term strategies, the main thing companies are doing now is studying the long-term effect on their organization and facilities of continued remote work (63 percent). More substantial and costly steps such as consolidation of offices, reshoring of operations to the U.S., using flexible office space, and establishing satellite suburban offices around a center-city base all are under consideration by leaders of many organizations today. However, final decisions on major changes will likely wait until employees have regular access to the office and they can determine how often employees will use it.

Ultimately, COVID-19 is likely to be viewed in hindsight as an accelerator, rather than an originator, of changes in offices and other commercial real estate. Offices made up of gray walls, cubicle farms and antiquated technology are obsolete. But that is because we are in the 21st century, not because of COVID-19.

Julie Whelan serves as Americas head of occupier research at CBRE.

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