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Post-Pandemic Workspace Changes

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The COVID-19 pandemic has driven us to reevaluate our physical proximity to others. As we return to working at full capacity in offices, and regardless of the health and medical progress, some level of anxiety about invisible contagions is and will continue to persist. This is resulting in a focus on personal space and changes in our comfort level with physical closeness. Currently, workplace layouts and employee densities are being considered carefully to address some form of social distancing framework, whether through a mandate from management or preference from the workforce. We would expect that this will continue to be expected in the workplace over the next several months, if not longer, exactly if and when there is a full return to pre covid open-plan ratios is difficult to predict.  

1 September 2021

Tenants and building owners now need to carefully rethink communal spaces, shared amenities, and potentially crowded “bottlenecks” including lobbies, elevators, bathrooms, and cafés. Estimating usage, monitoring and managing density and flow, and creating flexibility to make adjustments and communicate protocols are proving to be critical for this transition period. People easily forget and it is still a very open question as to whether these changes in behaviour towards the working environment are here to stay.

In Bulgaria, most offices for the IT sector are designed largely around programming capability rather than support services although the larger companies will still have marketing and HR divisions that are often happy in open-plan creative and cooperative spaces. The requirements from the programmers, who tend to value a calm environment with minimal distractions. Our experience with some of the large IT companies such as SAP and VM ware is that even pre-pandemic they were already utilizing online applications for team meetings as many of their operations and projects are utilizing a global workforce, so for them, there is little operational change. As a generalization, though in other sectors, for example in ours, the need to fly to meetings face to face will be reduced for the longer term.  Companies have realized that there are significant cost savings and we just don’t need to do it anymore unless really necessary.       According to JLL, as of the first quarter of 2020, up to 70% of all office spaces were primarily or partially open plans in design. Over the past decade, general trends toward increased density have led to the compression of individual workstations. In fact, many studies on optimal workplace design promoted office densities that ranged anywhere from 7.5m2 to 15 m2 per person—far lower than the traditional 20 - 30 m2 allocated to employees at the start of the 21st century.

The recently trending arrangements of benching, shared desks, and hoteling stations are being evaluated.

These are shifting to provide a greater allocation of space per employee and more privacy. Team rooms are becoming more popular and there is a general focus on future-proofing the design of buildings and fit-outs through integrating flexibility. Should employers wish to change working procedures that need is now being reflected in the general layout of new office spaces through the application of movable acoustic barriers and open meeting areas and more generous common spaces. 

The research was already emerging in support of this concept. A Harvard University study in 2019 on the open office plan and found that face-to-face interactions dropped by 70% when compared to more traditional space, and digital interactions increased to compensate. The mixed performance of dense open plans, the new mandate of social distancing today, and the likely lingering psychological effects of this outbreak on employees in the foreseeable future could combine to create some decompression in the workplace, combine that with a new push towards environmentally conscious individuals and organizations and we hope to see far more workspaces integrate aspect into their design that improves the well-being of the individual through access to green spaces, fresh air and more personal space. 

As far as the consumer experience is concerned, it matters what we consider as a consumer, say, a landlord, a business owner or an employee.

We have received great feedback from tenants that they want their office spaces to feel like home.

This is largely in response to the need for them to entice their workforce out of their bedrooms and back into the office. Interestingly though it is largely realized now that the full, “work at home strategy” with the idea that we can now get rid of the office and live our lives on Zoom has been debunked. Both Google and Facebook are actually actively investing in office space and have insisted all of their staff come back to the office within fixed time frames. 

Sustainability through new construction technologies and the autonomous generation of energy through renewable sources would be the big ones.

Operationally there will be closer links between the office and the home. In reaction to the covid experience, people will and are asking for more flexibility in how and where they work, but they will still need a place to work outside their homes. Solutions to these issues are multifaceted and different organizations will require different solutions to balance that particular equation, some will require a shared workspace which is not a new phenomenon anymore. In our experience shared workspace or hot-desking is never perfect but can be helpful as a part of a broader strategy. It is difficult to make your workspace feel like home if you don’t have your own desk. However, it still has its place, especially if half the workforce are servicing contracts outside the office and the other half are demanding less commuting time.    The reality is that there is not a single solution. Tennent’s are looking at multiple solutions within one location as they serve different parts of their business in different ways. One thing is very clear though, sustainability within the built environment is going to force as yet unforeseen changes over the next 10 – 20 years if countries are going to keep to their climate targets as governments legislate to meet those targets.    The real estate sector is still by far the largest emitter with 40% of global Co2 emissions coming from the built environment. How we build and how we operate office space will be subject to changes in terms of city infrastructure, technology and how companies react to the workforce post-pandemic.  

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