It’s the question on the mind of most in the commercial real estate world right now: What is the future of the office?
CBRE’s Loren Bergmann, Managing Director for Workplace Strategies, and Lisa Fulford-Roy, Senior Vice President, Client Strategy, have a better sense than most. Day in and day out they work with office-occupier clients who are contemplating how to configure their workplaces to meet post-pandemic standards and adapt to changing work styles.
Bergmann and Fulford-Roy and their colleagues have the benefit of being connected to CBRE’s global network of workplace strategy experts, providing access to valuable advance intelligence from other parts of the world, such as the APAC and EMEA regions, which are farther along in the return to the workplace process.
“Our global team has never been more connected, and it’s been a total game changer,” says Bergmann. “We’re able to see what’s happening on the frontlines around the world and that’s helping to guide our conversations with clients here in Canada.”
Tech loves office
While Manhattan is struggling with a glut of vacant office space, Bergmann notes that tech giants Facebook and Apple have announced plans to increase their office footprints in the city.
“That’s intriguing to me, because tech has always been the driving force and other sectors typically follow,” she says. “If those tech companies are committing to new office space, that indicates they think there’s still a strong demand for people wanting to come together.”
Google has said that as of September it is encouraging employees to be in the office at least three days a week. “And who measures team effectiveness better than Google?” Bergmann says. “I’m inclined to believe they know what it takes to make a successful team.”
There has been no shortage of stories of employees hired during the pandemic who have had trouble integrating into teams while working remotely. And CBRE’s recent survey of 1,000+ office workers made it abundantly clear what employees valued most in the office after working remotely during COVID-19. Employees listed encounters with colleagues (38%), in-person meetings (33%) and in-person collaboration (32%) as the top benefits of being in an office. “It just shows you that office will continue to be a driver of culture and key to knowledge sharing,” says Bergmann.
How does an organization determine how much space it will need in the new reality? It will differ depending on the tenant and the market. “Everyone is in the same predicament when it comes to trying to figure out how the new workplace will function, but the solutions are nuanced and client-specific,” says Fulford-Roy. “More than ever before it’s not one size fits all. It requires custom and flexible solutions.”
The amount of office space a company needs will be shaped by the role it sees the workplace playing in a new hybrid model. “Most organizations want to create a compelling employee experience at the office,” says Fulford-Roy. “The new workplace will be geared toward bolstering culture and reinforcing the company’s brand, with team-building amenities that help to foster collaboration.”
The option of working two to three days a week in the office, and the other days from home, is “extremely popular with most of our clients right now,” says Bergmann. But what will be the impact of increased working from home on office layouts and space allocations? She anticipates most businesses will require the same-sized footprint as they did before, only it will be recalibrated, with far more emphasis on We Space (kitchens, cafes, collaboration areas) versus Me Space, like individual workstations, due to be replaced by desk-sharing in a hybrid model that favours an activity-based work environment.
Clients in the midst of longer leases or needing to make imminent real estate decisions are considering workplace changes that reflect evolving employee expectations, collaboration demands, and new ways of working. For many this includes revalidating spaces for collaboration and focus as well as integrating a broader range of technology solutions to support a seamless employee experience. Booking software is being considered to manage space demand, create ease of booking and locate colleagues in a free-address environment. Other considerations for hybrid work include optimization of what’s known as “mixed presence collaboration,” to ensure that employees, regardless of where they work, are equally included, engaged and able to contribute, unlike virtual participants pre-COVID.
A recent CBRE client survey showed that 81% of respondents expect at least half of their workforce to be office-based in the future, and 83% of the organizations surveyed said they anticipate the workplace being a more shared environment.
“We’ll be using the office to come together and build trust. So we need spaces that allow people to meet, create, innovate and work together, which requires more than the typical meeting room,” says Bergmann. “Office space will be less static than before. Think hackable and reconfigurable arrangements. Less complicated cubicles so you can repurpose space or take furniture with you if you grow and move.
Flexibility will be key in the new workplace and one solution that’s been getting a lot of attention is micro-architecture: off the shelf components that can be moved around a workplace space or taken with you if your lease is expiring in a few years. “Architectural changes will allow tenants with long leases to make the changes needed to stay relevant and reflect the times,” Bergmann says.
For landlords trying to maintain occupancy and attract new tenants, flexibility will be their new competitive advantage. “Flexibility may be the next sought-after amenity,” Fulford-Roy says. “That could take the form of communal lounges within office buildings or leases that make it easier to grow or move within a portfolio. Flexibility is going to differentiate physical buildings and real estate service providers.”
At a more philosophical level, Fulford-Roy notes that the structure of hybrid work will be shaped by employee preferences based on their life stage and career maturity.
“In recent years, the workforce was viewed as consisting of two camps: those that were tech savvy and those that weren’t, and this was attributed to generational demographics,” she says. “Fast forward to today where we’ve all been working remotely, and tech savvy is no longer a distinguishing feature. From our perspective, life stage has a significant impact on preference for remote work and frequency of remote work. Employers should anticipate ongoing changes in demand and build a flexible and agile solution that flex with employee preferences throughout their career cycle.”
Someone with a young family at home, for example, might want to be less to have work/life separation. While empty nesters with a deeper bench of experience and an established professional network may choose to work from their home office a few days a week. Whereas a single employee who lives alone in a small condo with little space to work would likely want to come into the office most of the time, to build their career and social networks.
Although employees will be more empowered than before — 73% of organizations surveyed by CBRE said they anticipate more employee choice over when and where they work — Bergmann stresses that businesses are going to reassert themselves to make sure that they are getting the results they need for clients and that they maintain the culture that is so important to their long-term success.
“Most businesses are able to accommodate the hybrid model and have some employees working from home some of the time,” she says. “Work from home demand could be a thorny issue for employers and employees to navigate, but from a space and design perspective, there are ways to build out workplaces that meet everyone’s needs."
Adds Fulford-Roy: “For leaders, it’s going to come down to determining the right balance to preserve culture, innovation and high-performance teams. What leaders prioritize — whether it’s innovation or lower costs — is so specific to each business, what they value and what they want to measure going forward. That’s what is informing their decisions, and the future of office will consist of a range of tailored solutions.”