Five business leaders discuss how the pandemic has reshaped office life – and the technologies, working styles and trends that could change it in the future
Steve McGregor, managing director of the DMA Group, which provides the specialist services needed to keep buildings running.
Tomáš Jurdák, partner and head of real estate at MiddleCap, a private investment holding company.
Nathan Doughty, CEO of Asite, a cloud collaboration system for architects, engineers and builders
Dr Nicola Millard, principal innovation partner at BT and a researcher specialising in the future of work
Paul Pavia, head of development at MEPC, a property investment and development business
Are businesses reimagining the office in light of the pandemic?
SM: The evidence is now incontrovertible: both the purpose and the value of the workplace are changing and will continue to change.
TJ: Originally, the office was all about the physical environment. But I think we’re now looking more to the emotional quality of the space. This is something that we as a developer are trying to capture.
ND: For us, a big factor in recruitment historically was how far away someone was from London. But we’ve realised that when everyone works at home or they need to come in only once or twice a week, it doesn’t matter where they are.
NM: We’ve seen a huge acceleration in the digital side of things. We’re in a situation where we’re trying to learn and reinvent work so that it works for both employers and employees.
PP: Communicating in 2D with colleagues is quite an isolating and soulless experience. The longer that homeworking has gone on, the more people have become desperate to return to the office.
What challenges might companies face when adapting offices to suit new ways of working?
SM: When defining the ideal workplace, I used to explain it as a Venn diagram of people, property and process. The people circle is unchanged, but property has become more place and process is now definitely technology. So now one of the biggest questions that companies must ask themselves is: “What do we need and where do we need it?”
If companies want to repurpose the office substantially to be more collaborative, or create spaces that have flexible functions, that may drive them to relocate or consider downsizing – and there are costs associated with that. There may also be a cost associated with exiting a lease, which is never easy. And, if you want to change the space fundamentally, you not only have to think about technological aspects such as connectivity; you also need to consider how to create productive, safe and well-ventilated places to work.
How might hybrid working influence the future office?
NM: I always use the analogy of the zedonk, which is a hybrid of a zebra and a donkey. It doesn’t spend three days a week as a zebra and two days a week as a donkey. It’s a completely different breed. And that’s what I think hybrid working is about. It’s not about how many days you’re in the office; it’s about fundamentally changing the way you work.
I’m fairly confident that there will be some horrible hybrids in the next few years. The obvious one, which we experienced before the pandemic, was the meeting that was split between digital space and physical space. That’s a nightmare, because proximity bias means that the people in the room tend to ignore those who aren’t there. So how do we create office spaces that enable those kinds of interactions to be frictionless?
Can sensors and other technologies help to ensure that the future office is more sustainable?
ND: The built environment accounts for an estimated 40% of carbon emissions, so we should use the current situation to change not only the way we work, but also the impact that offices have on the environment.
With regard to smart technology, the ability to determine that no one has been in a room for the past half hour and automatically adjust its air conditioning, say, is one thing. But we also work with many developers that are keen to incorporate sustainability into their buildings from the outset.
It is important to track what products you put into a building in the first place – something might work fine today, but not necessarily 10 years from now. One of the biggest issues we have in the built environment is that you do something, you move on and nothing is recorded. Building information modelling and digital twinning, which enable digital records to be associated with corresponding physical items, can help to solve that.
How might property developers approach office projects in future?
TJ: People like to be in nature, so biophilia is important, as is natural light. And people like fresh air, so they want to open windows. But in London you don’t find many buildings with openable windows, which is such a basic thing.
We brought all of this [to our new development in the London Borough of Southwark]. It had an impact on the cost, so it was maybe 8% more expensive than the market benchmark. But we went to the board of directors and obtained their approval to invest more in the building. We completed the project earlier this year and were awarded platinum Smart Building Certification. This highlights that tenants and investors are now open to paying for this kind of product.
What role will the future office play in employee wellbeing?
PP: Our strength at Wellington Place [a new urban quarter in Leeds that includes high-spec offices, independent restaurants and landscaped gardens] is that we offer people a really enjoyable experience. We say: “Don’t think of the office as somewhere you go to work; think of it as a place for your daily interactions with people and for your wellbeing activities.”
External spaces will also be so important for encouraging people back to the office. People want to know that they can unwind outside in beautiful surroundings at lunchtime and have a sandwich and a chat. Because they return to work energised and ready to go, productivity goes through the roof. So it’s crucial that landlords not only think about providing bricks and mortar. We must also think about how to provide a real community feel.
Are we likely to see more smaller regional offices that are closer to people’s homes?
TJ: I think localised offices are a replacement for the home office for people who don’t want to mix their private lives with office work. But I don’t think they will compete with hub offices because of the concentration of capital, talent and amenities that these hubs offer.
NM: It’s true that not everyone wants to work from home, although this has worked for about 70% of people. But I think they’re now saying: “I don’t want to work there all the time,” because it can be lonely, or you end up living at work.
What other trends and technologies might shape the office over the next decade?
PP: Office environments are becoming more and more engaging spaces to be in, which will continue to be a trend.
ND: When you talk about sensors and real-time linking between a 3D model and a physical asset, the important thing here is data. So there needs to be a golden thread of information running right from the design and construction of a building through to delivery and operations.
SM: As the service provider in a constructed space, our view has always been that data is dollars, but data also improves quality and service. And we’re increasingly using data to automate what we do.