The office as we know it may be doomed thanks to Covid. Good riddance! But what will replace it? While it is clear the pandemic will influence how space is used, it will be an evolution rather than a revolution.

The End of High Density

According to a recent JLL report, 70% of office space is open concept in which most employees work in cubicles in large, unwalled floors. Such crowded space is particularly dangerous in a pandemic. High-density open seating has almost certainly peaked as a real estate usage model.

The use of open space is likely to decrease, being replaced with more private meeting areas. Floor plans have already begun to be adjusted for social distancing and sanitation measures.

There is a great deal of uncertainty about the effects of the pandemic on overall demand for office space.  In the short-term, landlords may be willing to be more flexible with tenants and offer certain rent concessions to maintain occupancy. The surprising success of remote work necessitated by the global crisis has encouraged even more fundamental questions about the role of space in work life, productivity, and collaboration.

Sudden Rise of Remote Work

Remote work was slowly gaining ground in the years prior to the Covid pandemic. Studies of the remote work option emphasized the personal and social costs of commuting. The desire for more autonomy was also identified as a significant employee satisfaction consideration. However, the uncertainty over productivity and sheer inertia inhibited adoption of remote work.

All of that has suddenly changed. A recent Gartner survey indicates that 74% of CFOs expect to implement remote work. Technology has filled the gap and enabled levels of remote collaboration unthinkable just months ago. Platforms like Zoom and Slack are now household names rather than the esoteric tools of software engineers.

The old habits were set aside out of necessity, and to the pleasant surprise of many, productivity improved. The success of the unplanned global remote work experiment has clearly changed thinking – and expectations. It is now likely that 20-30% of the workforce will work remotely several days per week going forward.

The sudden rise of remote work has drawn attention to some of the downsides of the approach. One significant concern is cybersecurity of homebased employees. In a recent interview, Alexandru Boghiu, former Director of Digital and Technology for CBRE and the current Managing Partner at The Mavers, told Bright Insights “Employers might find it difficult to ensure security of data that comes from personal laptops, connected to public networks.”

The Cost of Work-from-Anywhere

There are other human factors involved as well. There is no substitute for in-person interaction to achieve the richest collaboration. It is also true that human beings require personal interaction to feel connected with their work, maintain high morale, and retain a commitment to the organization and its goals.

Another downside of prolonged work from home is in ability to escape the demand of the job. Many report that establishing a healthy work schedule can be a challenge. A healthy work-life balance can be more difficult when work and homelife are co-located. For these reasons, offices and communal collaboration is here-to-stay, though modified to provide for safety and wellbeing.

The transformation of the workspace is already underway. Several major commercial real estate companies have published guides and research that open the conversation about the workspace of the future. Healthy workplaces concepts, including density, social distancing, sanitizing methods, and occupancy technology are all elements of the modified workplaces that will emerge post-Covid.

Emerging Tech for Occupancy and Planning

An emerging technology expected to play a growing role in the safe workplace is the use remote visualization. Voice activated devices, virtual reality, augmented reality, and 3D rendering are important new capabilities in these times.

The need for special awareness, facial recognition and temperature scanners are all vital in the precise occupancy management which the pandemic demands. The  benefits of very detailed, highly automated space utilization is likely to be one of the lasting effects of the Covid response.

The role and purpose of office space is evolving from the factory-inspired paradigm as the place where production occurs, to a more social and collaborative space where creativity is shared and nurtured.

The Office’s Role will Change

According to Anne Maire Diaconu of Skanska Property Romania, “offices might change their purpose, becoming more a social destination, a place dedicated to sharing ideas with co-workers,” said Diaconu in Bright Insights. “The space serves to enhance the sense of belonging to the organizational culture.”

The global Covid-19 pandemic has forced the world into a massive reevaluation of conventional notions of collaboration, productivity, management, and space utilization. Given the demands of employee safety and wellbeing, changes are inevitable. Many will be accelerated from pre-existing trends.

But the pandemic has also reminded us of what we value most in work and in life; the opportunity to be with others, to share ideas and experiences, to be valued and to appreciate others. In the end, the space, and the tech all serve our common humanity, and therefore the office will evolve, but will continue to be with us.

This article was originally published on Commercial Real Estate Biz.

Cover photo by Adolfo Félix on Unsplash