What will the office look like in a post-Covid-19 world?

The pandemic has made companies rethink their workplace strategy and company culture.

FROM the United States to Australia, social distancing measures have been announced by governments around the world to stem the spread of Covid-19. Singapore too made the move to "pre-empt escalating infections" as the city-state entered into a month-long "circuit-breaker" on April 7.

Most companies have responded to the tighter social distancing guidelines. Working from home has become mandatory for all except essential services. Never before have so many firms and industries been compelled to enable work from home for their employees.

More than just a massive work-from-home experiment, this situation is an inflection point. Companies, managers and employees are now faced with what it really means to sustainably and effectively maintain work quality, collaboration and co-ordination, as well as social behaviours usually seen in the office - all the while being at home.

While the coronavirus has upended the way we work, it has also made companies rethink their workplace strategy and company culture. How we work and where we work have fundamentally shifted, which impacts corporate real estate in two main ways: it redefines the purpose of the office and changes how companies plan their real estate portfolio.

The immediate result of the pandemic is the realisation that working from home is possible although challenging, especially in countries where home spaces are small and not-conducive to working. Nevertheless, we can expect companies to prioritise Business Continuity Plans and plan how working from home can be more structured.

When employees begin to return to the office once the outbreak is contained, we will start seeing some companies springing forth to embrace this culture change. They may refit their offices to best reflect these new dynamic practices. In terms of design, this could take the form of giving more choices in the type of spaces people can choose to work from to suit what they're doing - be it a focused task or more collaborative work. More emphasis could also be placed on how offices can be designed to inspire more collaborative work while individual work occurs at home.

There are likely to be new health and hygiene-driven policies, such as changes in the fresh air provisions in workplaces, while more companies will promote clean desk policies to improve hygiene. Activity-based working environments could provide employees with alcohol wipes for desks, phone, mouse and keyboard.

As companies become more willing to adopt flexible working and work from home policies, the practice of flex space will be a fixture in portfolio management. It will likely form a larger share of a firm's corporate real estate planning. This could, in turn, influence organisations to hunt for smaller and a wider network of multiple locations to operate in.

A bigger implication will be the type of buildings in which corporates choose to locate themselves. Spaces in buildings that promote better health among employees will be more highly coveted. Urban planners across Asia are already including green and healthier spaces in built environments to promote physical, mental and emotional well-being of their occupants, and this trend will become more popular within the office space.

The place where you connect

Ultimately, the office is not going away. As Covid-19 and the consequent social distancing measures have shown, the need for human connection and collaboration will always be there. Humans are social animals - there will always be a demand for physical, social spaces to facilitate communication with fellow workers and for organisations to build a sense of belonging and connection.

The workplace forms an important part of an organisation as it is the physical manifestation of a company's culture and brand. In the future we may see the purpose of the office shift from the place where you do your work to the place where you connect, a location that focuses on brand, clients, co-workers and external partnerships. Instead of merely a place to be productive, the workplace will evolve to serve as a catalyst for employee engagement and experiences.

The current crisis is testing society in many ways, including ushering in new ways of connecting and working. With greater flexibility in how we work, this would also spell more opportunities for a more diverse workforce such as primary child carers and part-timers.

Looking beyond this giant work-from-home experiment, it's time to start thinking about life in the office in a post-Covid-19 world.

  • Marina Krishnan is division president, corporate solutions, JLL Asia Pacific


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