Much ink has been spilled over the last year by pundits predicting the death of the office. But these claims ignore a simple fact. The office has always evolved.
The mediaeval monk working meditatively at his desk. The sea of eighteenth-century clerks scribbling away on behalf of the East India Company. The smoke-filled typing pool of the sixties. All these images tell a story of the evolving office.
In recent years, we saw workspace per person shrink as hot-desking, activity-based and teleworking trends took off. But last year, the shift to remote work sparked a radical rethink of office space.
“The remote working experience has encouraged many people to ask a big question: ‘What does my office give me?’ It will be a challenge for employers to lure their people back to the office if they aren’t getting this right,” says Nick Farley, Workplace Innovation Manager at ISPT.
“The commute is the first hurdle that the office must now overcome. Most employees can now decide whether they walk down the corridor to their home office or head out the door and tackle the commute. That means the office must be worth it.”
Many enterprises – from tech titans to government departments – are testing the idea of a “flexible work week” that balances work at a central office hub with work from home.
Limitations of a remote workforce
While the option to work remotely proves it has many aspects of benefit, this hybrid model also brings new challenges. The Productivity Commission has pointed out that “a prolonged period of remote work may reduce the organic development of ideas, dampening potential productivity gains had these ideas come to fruition”.
The Productivity Commission is not the only one to sound the warning. Architecture firm Bates Smart’s survey of more than 1,500 Australian office workers late last year found the ability to undertake focused work had increased by six per cent while working from home in 2020, but collaboration fell by 13 per cent and creativity by nine per cent over the course of the year.
Bates Smart’s survey also uncovered a host of physical problems that prevent collaboration in the era of remote working: teams split across multiple locations; a lack of quiet rooms for video and phone meetings; restrictions on large face-to-face meetings due to room capacity constraints; and limited access to meeting rooms with the right technology, for example.
So, what is the solution?
“The best workplaces will offer a ‘third space’ – something in between home and office that gives people extra flexibility in a collaborative, creative environment,” Farley suggests.
“The creation of smaller, accessible and localised working spaces will provide the workforce with those features of a working office environment and could further boost community wellbeing and sustainability”, says Greg Sciortino, Town Planner at Knight Frank.
Sciortino explains “providing new solutions to cater for changing workforce dynamics and provid[ing] local space for people to utilise will allow employers and employees the opportunity to create a virtual or physical environment and network that works best for their personalised situations.”“People see the potential of flexible space. Optionality has value; it means being able to defer some of those difficult decisions about your office requirements until the future becomes clear.”
UNSW’s recent study of around 6,000 APS employees working during the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions asked respondents about their workplace preferences for the future, and their responses highlighted the growing need for flexible work spaces among key groups of employees such as the Australian Public Service. “There were few employees who preferred to spend all hours in the workplace in the future. The most popular choices of employees were for some hours every week from home (38.8%) and most hours worked from home every week (30.9%),” the study explains.
Respondents also made suggestions on how they could be better supported as they worked from home. “An overriding request was for improved technology. Employees and managers told us that their systems were too slow, and that they did not have access to all the necessary software, including virtual communications.”
Flex is best
The COVID-19 crisis has transformed the way we work and is driving an increased demand for flexibility and flexible workspace.
“Our challenge is to keep evolving our buildings so they remain engaging and energising places where people feel they can do their best work. That means adapting our spaces to meet the changing needs of our customers,” Farley explains.
According to real estate giant Knight Frank, one third of tenant customers today say that between five and 50 per cent of their space is flexible or serviced offices. But this figure is expected to double in just three years.
Health concerns have driven down demand for short-term desks and coworking, but customers are turning instead to flexible space that sits alongside larger tenancies.
In volatile times, many organisations see flexible space as a short-term solution that allows them to adapt their office footprint to the market conditions. Deadlines shift, teams grow and projects get a sudden green light. Flexible space suits every enterprise from large government departments outgrowing their existing office to small start-ups looking for a base without being locked into a long-term lease.
Flex by ISPT, for example, is a national network of teamworking, meeting, conferencing and event spaces that combines out-of-office options with short-term private tenancies. Flex Meetings caters for everything from a video conference for a couple of people to a 100-person town hall, while Flex Teamworking provides secure and customisable space for between eight and 250 people.
“Flex by ISPT offers flexibility of tenure, space and configuration. Tenants can sign on for as little as a month at a time, move walls to create the space that suits, and, with fitouts that are 95 per cent modular, we can reconfigure space over the weekend,” Farley explains.
“People see the potential of flexible space. Optionality has value; it means being able to defer some of those difficult decisions about your office requirements until the future becomes clear.”
Co-create in space
While Flex by ISPT was popular prior to COVID-19, ISPT’s Workplace Partnership Manager Letitia Hope says employers in both the private and public sectors are looking seriously at flexible space because “it brings a completely different style of working into the frame”.
Flex by ISPT provides high-quality audio-visual equipment, presentation screens, cameras and microphones. Furniture on wheels can be moved on a whim. There are Zoom rooms and spaces that offer both audible and visual privacy, as well as writable furniture and sit-to-stand desks.
“People say they love the creativity sparked by working in a completely dynamic and flexible space. We find that some public sector teams, for example, can create a modern and collaborative space for innovation that they might not otherwise be able to do in their day-to-day office.”
Flexible space offers other overlooked benefits, Hope adds.
“We’ve found the non-secure access is a huge advantage, and the highest group bookings tend to be during recruitment drives when large numbers of people are passing through but don’t need high levels of security clearance.”
Where is the trendline heading?
“At its best, an office brings people together. It’s a unifying experience,” Farley explains.
“That’s why people will head back to the office – because the experience they get from being together is better than what they can have at home. The best offices are flexible and adaptable, inspiring innovation and creativity – and these are the offices where people want to work.”