Rethinking the office

Businesses face tough decisions over the future use of property and office space in an uncertain environment. Through client conversations, hosting events and canvassing expert opinions, we’ve been exploring different angles to the future of the office debate. It’s clear to us that the question on most professional services leaders’ minds is – what is the right balance in reconfiguring our real estate?

In this article we share our insights and what we’ve learnt so far.

WEBINAR: A fresh perspective of how the workspace continues to evolve

In this virtual event we explored the potential opportunities for Professional Services firms who are thinking about the future of their office space post COVID-19. 

Workplace strategies and the future of the office is clearly an evolving story. The key priority for firm leaders remains to find the right balance of investing in technology and decision making around re-configuring office space and future agile working policies that compliments your overall strategy and organisation culture. This is with recognition that there must be a cultural shift internally to accept the best of the old and new ways of working.

We were delighted to be joined by four speakers, who each shared their own perspectives on the topic:

  • Jenny Shutt, Director in Corporate Advisory Services at BDO shared her experience from clients and BDO’s perspective, looking at how firms are defining their property strategy. 
  • John Williams, Chief Marketing Officer at The Instant Group shared recent research and current market trends from firm’s rethinking their workspace and the potential impact of flexible working practices.
  • Lisa Mayhew, Co-Chair of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner reflected on BCLP’s experience following a recent office move during the pandemic and thoughts on how they are continuing to reimagine their office space and lessons learnt during the process. 
  • Dan Francis, Head of Innovation at BDO looked further into the future of how new technologies can facilitate change and how this may help the workspace evolve.

Watch the webinar

WORKPLACE STRATEGY: Our approach

BDO have been looking at how we can help our professional services clients to emerge stronger from the 2020/21 lockdown and to evolve workplaces to ensure the many benefits, learnings and efficiencies of home-working identified during COVID-19 are not lost.

With the challenge of what to do with offices and property – often situated in expensive city centre areas and typically a top three expenditure cost- our methodology to support our clients looks at your workplace needs through the three lenses of clients, colleagues and the firm. We can build a tailored solution that will help you unlock these opportunities to deliver long term benefits.

We believe that there is a way to:

  • Deliver significant savings
  • Give your clients a better experience
  • Enhance your colleagues’ experience and your organisational culture
  • Reduce risk and make your operational model more cost effective
  • And deliver a greener outcome.

Tell me more

OPINION PIECE: What’s the point of the office?

We published an article is the Property Chronicle that explores the new priorities that must be considered in order to rethink our working spaces effectively.

“The office is dead!” some headlines have proclaimed. “What’s the point of an office anyway?” others have asked. Are these bold claims an exaggeration or, at the very least, premature? Despite recent enforced home-working, can online interactions and remote working really foster creativity and collaboration and sustain productivity for the longer term?

Our article tackles some of the following issues:

  • The pressure being put on boards and leadership teams to consider assets and to be smarter with their real estate usage
  • The always-on culture, where rising client demands and ambitious growth targets have led to a blurring of home and office working
  • Is hot-desking a thing of the past and collaborative environments the way forward?

There is no doubt that there is a lot to consider in revaluating property and workspaces and perhaps one of the biggest considerations currently is the impact of mass home-working on culture, training and employee wellbeing.

Read the full article

PODCAST: Industry Angles – Rethinking the office

As part of our Industry Angles podcast series hosted by Jonty Bloom, we discussed the role of the office and how offices will change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were joined by industry experts:

  • Darren Comber, CEO of Scott Brownrigg
  • Katrina Kostic Samen, Head of workplace strategy & design at KKS Savills
  • Yvonne Hills, Client Director at Davitt Jones Bould.

The podcast explores attitudes to working remotely, the return to the office debate and the importance of office culture and transforming workspaces.

Listen to the podcast

VIRTUAL EVENT: How will the health crisis affect future property requirements of Professional Services firms?

We hosted a virtual Q&A event with industry experts to explore how the health crisis may affect future property requirements of Professional Services firms. To start the event, we posed two key questions to our guest speakers and property experts Mat Oakley, Director of Commercial Research at Savills and Michael Dubicki, Business Development Director at Flexioffices;

  • Has the ‘purpose’ of an office changed, and
  • Are businesses looking at using property differently?

Our event recording is available to watch and here we outline three key themes that emerged from our discussions. You may also be interested to read our ‘Space to work: Offices in 2020’ report that discusses pre-existing trends in changes to the workplace that have accelerated in respond to COVID-19.  

Watch our event recording

1. Habits versus behavioural change

As we have moved out of the first lockdown in Spring 2020, businesses were required to materially change work spaces in very short time in preparation for the return to the office. Firms experienced a different uptake in willingness to return to the office however, and based on client discussions we understood staff surveys showed a high proportion of employees keen to return to the office, but actual uptake was much lower once the option is available.

Following the short term focus on adapting work environments to ensure safety and hygiene, decisions on property use for the longer term have turned to focusing on collaboration, productivity and efficiency. The great uncertainty however is the difficulty in predicting a change in people’s behaviour, if any, as a result of the pandemic. You could argue working from home is more attractive, and easier currently, while the majority of office workers and colleagues are doing the same. This could change once face-to-face meetings start and if diaries return to their pre-COVID-19 status. Alternatively, it could be seen that presenteeism will become a culture of the past, but fears of a recession and redundancies could overrule this.

What is clear, is the majority of issues that were high on businesses agenda pre COVID-19 still remain – employee wellbeing, environmental sustainability, agile working and digital transformation to name a few – and a focus on bringing about real positive change in these areas has been accelerated. Where there may have been industry resistance previously to the adoption of larger scale remote working, people have proven they do work at home and a trust in staff will remain important. 

2. Balancing work time between home and the office

Savills Office Fit survey in Spring 2020 showed that 89% of respondents felt the office will remain a necessity, however preferences on propensity to work from home post-lockdown was on average 2-3 days. This is the worst result for a corporate organisation as it’s not enough to radically review floor space, yet it would also require longer term investment in remote working requirements.

Weighing up investment in revamping offices and in greater adoption of technologies to support effective working in both of these environments is a challenge, although the focus should be on implementing measures and infrastructures that increase productivity. The initial lockdown experienced proved that people don’t necessarily need to commute every day to add value to an organisation and there is an opportunity for businesses to allow people to work in a place that best suits the task they need to do.

Flexi Offices conducted a similar survey looking at 'What role does the office have to play in the future of work?', with a large proportion of respondents from professional services firms. 56% reported that they will be encouraging more flexible working hours going forward. This was echoed by general trends to place a bigger focus on wellbeing, flexibility and an increased allowance for staff to work from home.

We expect people led considerations will play a greater factor in decision making. The balance of keeping staff happy, healthy and safe versus making effective financial decisions may however lead to the ‘butting of heads’ of many HR and Finance Directors during this process. There are limits to balancing the best of both worlds and giving staff an opportunity to voice their priorities will be a useful tool. 

3. To what extent will we see a seismic shift in the way we work?

Agile working

Many professional services firms have developed an ‘always on’ culture to meet growing client demands and challenging growth targets. As a result, increasingly longer hours and work demands have eaten into people’s family time, personal time and head space. Yet productivity hasn’t necessarily increased, if anything it has worsened in line with the UK’s slowdown in productivity. A positive impact of COVID-19 should be on improving quality of life and enabling people to take steps to rebalance their priorities in and out of work.

Reflecting on the suggested demand for increased remote working from staff themselves, a move from a proportion of staff working from home a few days a month, to the majority working from home 2 or 3 days a week going forward is actually quite a dramatic change.

Property costs, locations and leases

The property market has general trends in responding to a recession and we have seen some of these play out already. Mat Oakley described observing a decline in leasing, a rise in property vacancies and businesses looking at their occupancies – both to sub-let space or return to landlords - and a reduction in developments.

Property costs typically represent 10-15% of operating costs and there will be clear challenge to boards and leadership teams on their use of property space versus their investment in technology in order to increase productivity. Flexioffices survey revealed a huge intent amongst London based companies who are in a position to consider their office space, with 36% looking to move out of the city of London - this is a large number considering the logistical challenges this brings. A hub and spoke model is an alternative, however this is much easier in theory than in practice, especially for existing companies.

Flexible office space has been rising in prominence and despite a temporary reduction in demand, interest levels are expected to rise above pre COVID-19 levels. There may well be an increase in interest from corporate company’s requesting serviced work space, especially if a network is available regionally.

Overall we expect companies will seek where possible to reduce their footprint, and for businesses with upcoming lease negotiations, tenants may have the upper hand. Also, where recruitment has been a big challenge for many industries in the recent decade, greater home-working could unlock much bigger workforce pools, and at a lower cost to premium city salaries.   

Conclusion

Considering the future of the office and the extent to which its use should evolve divides opinion. Many anticipate a steady return to previous working patterns, but others visualise offices being used only for collaboration. Either way, there is a strong opportunity to capitalise on the positive impacts of COVID-19 and financial costs are not the only metric. Staff engagement measures to monitor happiness and morale, as well as sustainably measures will help organisations to address productivity concerns and support with a reduction in staff turnover.

We could see a longer term move towards smaller offices or businesses, with increased agile working and technology to become an enabler of unlocking productivity. Perhaps most important however, is a modern office that reflects a workforce, and no two workforces are the same.

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