Wednesday 17 June 2020 11:03 am

Welcome to the blended office

Bruce Dear is head of London real estate at Eversheds Sutherland.

Since the scribes of ancient kings worked together under a sunshade, we have had offices. 

Offices survived the Black Death, the Red Death, Spanish Flu, and Ricky Gervais. Offices aren’t about to disappear — but they may now be changing more than ever before.

We should be ready for change, but do not be surprised if doesn’t happen. Societies can suffer epochal traumas, but change little — World War One and previous pandemics prove that. People have short memories, believe bad things won’t happen to them (including Covid-19), and cling to their old habits like Linus to his blanket. 

Read more: Office Politics: What does the workplace of the future look like?

After all, offices have stood the test of five millennia for a reason: they work. In an office, you can be with your colleagues without the face-freezing rigmarole of video calls. You can have a laugh and a chat as you pass by a desk, or pop out and buy everyone ice creams. 

These small things play a big part in building team spirit, connection and community — and you can’t do them remotely.

Office space is also safe space. Lockdown restrictions have seen an increase in depression, domestic violence, and loneliness. Those suffering are not statistics — they are all our colleagues. For them, the office isn’t just an efficient place to work; it’s a valued refuge. 

For young and aspiring people, office life is the focus of lifestyle and ambition. They are recruited, trained, and grow up together in one space. Home working steals these social benefits — and remember that working from home isn’t the same for everyone. It’s one experience with a spare room to use as a study and garden, another entirely with shared kitchens and raucous flatmates. 

But before we all rush to abandon homeworking and plan a steady return to pre-Covid office life, consider the other side of the office’s story.

Office leases can be a stubborn and crushing cost. Every 10 years, a crisis convulses the world economy. You can set your mobile phone by it: the 1990 property crash, the bust, the global financial crisis, and now Covid-19. 

In every crisis, property costs bring down many businesses, and occupiers swear they won’t make the same mistake again. But then, like childbirth, they forget their past pain and take yet more long leases — just in time for the next decennial crash.

Combine this groundhog office cost risk with the Covid-19 home working revolution, and you have a hyper-accelerating engine of change. Working from home used to be a minority sport, then a tiny virus living in Wuhan’s wet market unexpectedly launched a worldwide home working experiment. 

Within 10 weeks, most of us adopted more technology than we would have done in 10 years. Suddenly, the remote office of 2030 was in our living rooms and, even allowing for its social and emotional downsides, for millions of people it worked.

So Covid won’t end office life, but it will change our relationship with it – both in the short-term with social distancing and, potentially, by unleashing a permanent re-imagination of the office world. Because the success of mass home working means we now have the chance to adopt a blended office model: an agile combination of virtual, home and office working, with people rotating between them. 

We can combine the benefits of the traditional office with the cost saving, flexibility and commuting-lite lifestyle of home working. 

The days of everyone working in a glittering, egotistical tower may be over. Instead, occupiers may take good space in a central office and spread the rest of their requirement across homes, local “plug and play” neighbourhood hubs, and serviced offices. 

This is a watershed opportunity for entrepreneurial landlords and tenants. Tenants will balance flexibility and cost saving with their need for an office where they can forge a corporate culture and maximise efficient team working. Astute landlords will change their product to meet the evolving demand. 

Office space will be more customer, service and amenity focused. Serviced offices may no longer be a New Age religion, but they will be key to this mix, as L&G’s Capsule shows. 

The switch to the blended office may be slow (lack of cash, arthritic thinking, and long-term leases lean against it), but the road to the blended office is open, and landlords and occupiers should work together to get there. 

The Covid-19 crisis gives us the chance to build a more resilient, choice-led and customer-centred office market. We should take it. 

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