Ways of working have changed dramatically in the face of COVID-19; water cooler moments have morphed into zoom calls and kitchen tables have replaced desks. Much has been said of this being the ‘death of the office’, but there are stronger arguments to say that this time of necessary remote working is not the beginning of a permanent transition to working from home.
Rather, COVID-19 is ushering in a broader structural shift towards flexibility around how, when and where we work that will permanently alter the lay of London’s commercial real estate market, with our offices becoming both more data focused and community orientated.
Having tried remote working, 86% of millennial workers now want to combine the digital and social connectivity of the office with regular working from home. Further, as businesses navigate the financial impacts of COVID-19, the end of the furlough scheme approaches and social distancing remains in place, the ability to adapt their office space commitments will be crucial.
As a result, businesses are shifting towards flexibility, for which the traditional long-term commercial lease is fundamentally unsuited. Workers themselves are also demanding this shift, questioning the necessity of returning to everyday commuting into urban centres, but also recognising that their homes don’t offer an effective professional workplace and that the community, collaboration and development opportunities offered by in-person interactions can’t always be recreated online. Further, a robust and fast internet connection will continue to be a factor drawing people to the office.
With businesses very likely to retain some form of physical office as a base for their community, we should expect this to be combined with higher levels of remote working than ever before. Offices, as a result, will have to adapt, functioning more as data centres, supporting a ‘hub and spoke’ model that empowers people working outside of the central office, while also maintaining a culture of collaboration that was so central to open-plan offices and co-working spaces – and which will continue to influence design in years to come.
The augmented office
However, office spaces must be reviewed to ensure that the necessary tech infrastructure for supporting this new way of working is available. Digital security will be crucial, especially for the tightly regulated industries synonymous with London’s financial centres,as well as flexible internet bandwidth and cloud calling apps. Integrating access to remote drives and video conferencing capabilities to connect more geographically dispersed teams will also be vital to effective business (and building) functionality, even beyond COVID-19.
Contactless interfaces, motion and temperature sensors and air quality regulation will also play a crucial role in protecting building health and efficiency, both in the immediate term as the workforce returns after lockdown, but also in the long run to support sustainability.
COVID-19 is a watershed moment for the traditional CRE sector – an opportunity to pivot in a market that has long lagged behind a ream property challengers and disruptors, despite the UK emerging this year as Europe’s proptech centre. The office isn’t dead, but commercial real estate in London must change, better embracing technology as flexibility becomes the primary demand on London’s CRE sector and a critical priority for architects, businesses, workspace operators and landlords alike.