Office Trends: How to Help CRE Clients Through Their Reopening

As predicted, the pandemic transformed workplace norms and expectations. While many organizations have begun the reopening process, leaders have discovered a considerable percentage of their employees are less than eager to return full time. (And after nearly a year and a half of flexibility and sweatpants, who can blame them?)

Now, as the labor market recovers and turnover increases, many business leaders recognize that a return to pre-pandemic in-office occupancy is unlikely — and the data backs this up. A recent survey of office space decision-makers, conducted by the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), found fewer than half of office tenant employees will return to the workplace full time.

To retain and attract top talent, companies are rethinking the value of a centralized office altogether. But, this doesn’t mean offices will cease to exist.

As a commercial real estate professional, it’s crucial you’re fully up to date on office trends and workforce expectations so you can help your clients meet their evolving needs. Today, we’re delving into the future of office spaces and how you can best support customers through the reopening phase.

How COVID-19 impacted the office sector

The rapid spread of the virus and resulting shelter-in-place requirements forced businesses across the globe to close their doors and move to a remote-only environment. Organizations adapted with new tech and processes, and after a short learning curve, employees embraced their new work style.

Now more than 16 months later, employers are determining how to bring their teams back together, and they’re finding most people would rather continue working from home — at least some of the time. Unsurprisingly, many workers find the prospect of long commutes, rush hour, and dress codes so unappealing that nearly 40 percent of people would rather quit their jobs than give up their remote work flexibility, according to data shared by Business Insider.

Of course, the love for work-from-home life isn’t unanimous. Another survey found 35 percent of workers are interested in a hybrid work style, and 25 percent would be happy to return full time, according to USA Today.

Additionally, companies have invested a lot of time, money, and other precious resources in tools, technology, and processes to support a remote workforce. Giving that up doesn’t always make sense, especially if employees are happy and productive working outside of the office.

As a result of this pandemic-driven remote work revolution, business leaders are re-assessing how they’ll use their office space.

Re-imagining the future of the office sector

While remote work offers plenty of flexibility and other benefits, it has its drawbacks. In addition to the isolation and lack of socialization between employees, it’s challenging for managers to gauge team members’ engagement levels, stress, and job satisfaction. A lack of recognition has left some employees feeling unmotivated and underappreciated. Additionally, some teams struggle to collaborate as effectively as they did in an office environment.

So, what’s next?

In an effort to give employees the best of both worlds — flexibility and space for face-to-face collaboration — many organizations are setting their sights on a hybrid work style. But this transition means reimagining the role of centralized offices, as well as office layout and amenities.

Before the pandemic, the conventional wisdom was that offices were critical to productivity, culture, retaining talent, and driving revenue. Companies competed for the most impressive office spaces in prime locations of major urban hubs. Collaboration, densification, and open-office design, among other concepts, were perceived as fundamental to achieving success.

But once the shelter-in-place directives took hold, business leaders found technology — including videoconferencing platforms like Zoom and digital collaboration tools like Slack — promoted similar (or better) productivity levels. In fact, according to a recent McKinsey & Company poll, 28 percent of workers were just as productive while working remotely, while 41 percent of workers say working from home made them more productive.

So, to encourage employees to return to their offices at least some of the time, organizations have to ensure they’re designing spaces with flexibility, productivity, and hybrid policies in mind.

What the new flexible workplace might look like

As we’ve established, brick-and-mortar offices are not going anywhere. People still need a basecamp to gather with colleagues, meet with clients, or simply get out of their houses. But the office will inevitably look different. How much offices change will vary from one organization to another and will likely continue to evolve over the coming years. But here are three of our predictions:

1. Less dense office space

Each hybrid model looks different, but the most popular option requires employees to work from the office a set number of days per week or month and spend the rest of the week working from the location of their choice.

Since fewer employees will be in the office, there’s less need for dense spaces. We expect offices to contain fewer desks and instead offer more open communal areas. Additionally, with some social distancing measures still in place, it’s a good idea to give employees plenty of room to spread out.

2. More collaborative environments

One of the main reasons people will use office spaces is face-to-face meetings with teammates and customers. We expect businesses will desire more collaborative areas, such as huddle rooms, well-equipped conference rooms, and conversation pits.

3. Well-connected, tech-driven workplaces

It’s also vital that spaces are equipped with all the necessary technology to connect with remote teammates, such as large screens and other hardware that integrates with virtual conferencing platforms. Organizations will also need to account for scheduling and space utilization software, especially if they offer office hoteling and desk reservations.

What does all this mean for CRE professionals?

As we continue the reopening phase, you should remain aware of your clients’ changing needs and the workforce’s changing expectations. With increased flexibility driving new real estate investments, it’s important to understand new office trends and how people will use their workspace in a post-pandemic world. As we move into the future, your clients will count on you to help them navigate the ever-changing role of the corporate office.