Pete Hammond, senior estimator, looks at what the future might hold for the new office environment.
As vaccines are rolled out, we can finally see an end to Covid-19.
But as we’ve said, the new reality won’t be the same as the old reality.
Many of us have become used to working from home. Employers are seeing greater productivity from a home-based workforce.
Many employees would like to continue to work from home, at least some of the time, without the hassle and expense of commuting.
Most employers, initially reluctant, would be happy with that because they can downsize their office space.
For employers and employees it adds up to a win-win situation, although it throws up many questions about the future of our towns and cities.
Before Covid-19, the office was the epicentre of our working life. We took it for granted that it’s where we had to work. It was the only realistic way of keeping in contact with colleagues.
Now there are networking programmes that allow the same working experience, but virtually.
Of course, the office also provides a social function. It gets us out of the house and allows us to meet others. For those who suffer from isolation that’s an important point.
But will we still need to go into the office five days a week?
For some, the answer will be yes. Their job may require it. They may want the security of an office environment.
But the evidence strongly suggests that most workers will now only want to go back to their offices on a part-time basis. The nine-to-five office routine looks likely therefore to be a thing of the past.
In a post Covid-19 world, what then for the office?
Around the world, governments are addressing shortages in housing to allow the conversion of empty offices.
For example, the South Korean government intends to add 114,000 homes for public housing within the next two years by buying empty hotels and offices.
Singapore is pushing a plan to redevelop old offices in its central business district and convert excess car park spaces into homes, shops, restaurants and indoor farms.
It’s a strategic trend that’s started in Asia, as governments and developers look to convert commercial space into housing.
In Singapore, for example, a recent survey showed that changed working practices could leave vacant offices and car parks in the land-starved city.
Whatever the future holds, we need to find new uses for under-utilised offices and find ways to re-energise our urban areas.
Converting older or unused commercial spaces into housing is not a new trend. A scheme in New York City that launched in the mid-1990s provides tax breaks for such conversions.
In the last decade, offices were the most common structures to be turned into rental units across the United States, according to research by property rental website RENTCafe.
But it also needs careful thought. For example, a scheme in the UK to redevelop old offices and shops with easier approvals created some 65,000 flats.
All very laudable, but there was little provision for public transport, other services and fuelled social isolation.
Of course, converting hotels into housing units is far cheaper than repurposing offices, with their large open spaces.
But it’s an approach to repurposing buildings for new uses and, with a shortage of housing units, maybe that’s a way forward.
We are also adept at helping to transform a building for one purpose into another. Whether that’s simply refurbishing older offices, as we’re doing in London, or the London Olympics media centre into high tech offices.
However, as we’ve said, the vitality of our towns and cities must be maintained. They cannot be allowed to wither.
We should therefore aim for a new reality that, while not the same as the old one, offers a bright future.
That future may start with the office, and what to do with them.