The pandemic has led countless companies to introduce broad work-from-home policies, leading many to wonder if this will become a permanent arrangement. Why, after all, do companies even need physical spaces when technology like Zoom can bring workers together, and allow them to save on leases and office furnishings?
It turns out that predictions about the demise of the office are likely overstated. Two experts on the topics—Diane Hoskins, CEO of design firm Gensler, and Christian Ulbrich who leads the commercial real estate firm JJL—explained why during Fortune’s virtual Global Forum event on Tuesday.
According to Hoskins and Ulbrich, the office will remain a fixture of corporate life, in large part because many employees find a shared workspace to be energizing and a place they perform their best work. But that doesn’t mean the office will be the same when workers return.
The pandemic, as it has in so many other areas of life, has accelerated trends already underway. One of these involves rethinking how we build and design the places we work—especially in regard to the trend of open offices.
“There’s a real backlash against open work environments where there’s unassigned seating,” says Hoskins, who adds that complaints about noise have also been increasing during recent surveys of worker satisfaction.
The pandemic has already forced companies that have reopened to space desks farther apart to promote social distancing. But Hoskins says these firms should use this moment to recognize that, in the future, many workers will expect to keep the flexibility to work from home—but that some will do so much more than others. She notes that a good portion of workers will come in every day, while others will only do so a few days a week. Others, meanwhile, are likely to come in only a few days a month when they need to collaborate.
In response, Hoskins says firms should pay special attention to creating private, quiet spaces for those who need to do “focus work,” which Gensler surveys say accounts for 47% of people’s work week. Meanwhile, managers should also recognize that occasional office goers won’t need dedicated spaces in the same way as those who come in every day.
Ulbrich of JLL noted that technology has made dividing space much easier, pointing to apps that let employees reserve everything from desks to rooms to parking spaces. He added that the pandemic (and the risk of future ones) is forcing firms to pay more attention to ensuring fresh air and water in buildings—something that is already a preoccupation among companies in Asia, where pollution is more prevalent.
Both Ulbrich and Gensler also said worries about a collapse in commercial real estate are overblown. The reason, they say, is that fewer companies may be obtaining leases but their departures will be offset by other companies embracing “de-densification”—using more space for the same number of employees.
Ulbrich also rejected speculation that the pandemic could deal a blow to the vitality of cities, saying city centers have long been an essential place for collaboration and exchange of information—and will continue to be so. He also disputed the idea that companies will move their headquarters to the suburbs.
“The suburb concept is flawed because you don’t have all employees living in the same suburb. So what suburb do you want to use?” he asked.
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