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Future of Work and Place

Nicola Gillen • 24/03/2020

The most significant outcome of the enforced period of household isolation will be to finally getting us over the inertia around home working. Most organisations are risk averse and slow to change. The virus has forced us into action. Managers now have to trust people. IT has to provide technology to support remote working. People have to use voice and video over physical presence. We will see the see dramatic changes in our working lives which will impact both people and planet, and we will see the challenges.

People and Planet Resilience

Home working builds resilience in people. While wellbeing remains a priority for corporates, it has now become a business-critical issue globally. Balancing work and life is a challenge for most. Working from home, releases time and enables focus. 

We need to question why we travel. It is non-sustainable that our default position is to jump on a plane. The virus will lead to a fundamental questioning of when face to face meetings are really necessary. Face to face is clearly our richest form of communication and it has been our default, with little thought for impact on people, cost and our planet. This will lead to a reduction in travel and therefore a reduction in carbon expenditure. Home working has already resulted in better air quality in parts of China. It will also lead to a better understanding of when we should meet face to face and when meeting virtually is just fine.

Cost Reduction

Right now, travel costs have all but disappeared for both corporates and individuals. Travel budgets need to be reassessed in line with the real need for travel. Any excess budget should be channelled into better IT and workplace experience for staff. 

We will finally realise that we have too much office space. The Cushman & Wakefield office occupancy database shows that on average we use our offices 58% of the time (56% in APAC, 61% in Europe and 56% in the Americas). Many organisations still size offices based on 100% occupancy.


This enforced experiment will help people to let go of the office security blanket and right size their office portfolio. There will be less office space but more leisure, healthcare and outdoor spaces. 

While the need for office space will reduce, the demand for other kinds of spaces will increase both within and outside the office. People will always need physical space and will always want to meet face to face. As we spend more time working virtually the demand for better quality physical environments and experiences will increase. Office space will become more varied, much fewer desks and many more spaces to meet, eat, exercise and unwind.

As the traffic to the office reduces, people will need more workplace choices locally near where they live, such as high street cafés and local community co-working spaces. The virus will show us how much time we waste commuting and give a renewed focus on wellbeing. This will result in an increased demand for better housing, leisure and healthcare facilities. We will rediscover nature. Access to outdoor space will be a lifeline during the pandemic. This reconnection with nature will come back into the office with more outdoor space, terraces and roof gardens.

Remote First

Some firms are already working on a remote first basis, i.e. employees are based from home and only come into the office for special events. These organisations pay for their employees broadband at home, provide them with a budget and office furniture catalogues from which to choose their desk and chair. The office is a place for memorable events, learning, team events, socialising and Christmas parties. There are bars, cafés and event space. These offices will be located in the most vibrant parts of cities, not out of town business parks. The office will no longer be a place to come and sit silently in rows doing individual work, especially at city centre rental and travel costs. 

Will we Want to Come Back to the Office?

The pandemic will shift attitudes to home working for good and we will do more of it. We must therefore redefine what the office is for. People will always want to meet their peers and network in person, relationships can be maintained virtually but are harder to create from a distance. Loneliness and isolation will be an issue for some. Too many people at home to concentrate will be an issue for others. We will come back to the office but not as we know it today. 

Importance of HR in Real Estate 

Work has left the office. Managing remote communities is a new challenge. Building culture and connection from afar requires new roles such as community managers. Some organisations already have a ‘Head of Happiness’ – acknowledging this sounds like something from the comedy TV series W1A! Offices are places to build community and reflect corporate values, increasingly those values will be about sustainability and wellbeing. Offices are a key lever for leadership and HR to drive people performance and engagement. 

Up until now HR has been sadly lacking in real estate discussions. FM and HR will work more closely together. There will be a fundamental shift in what FM needs to be, moving away from logistics and maintenance towards hospitality, wellbeing and experience. There has already been a shift in some organisations where real estate now reports through HR. We will see more of this post COVID-19. 

Future Role of Organisations and Workplace  

As global corporates grow in scale, influence and economic power, their responsibilities need to shift. There will be a shift from shareholder to stakeholder value. Profit needs to be balanced with care for the planet, society, employees and their families.

We will see organisations becoming more like the Cadbury or Unilever of old, extensive employee health and wellbeing programmes, supporting lifelong learning, caring for young and old. Some organisations already offer housing for graduate recruits as part of their onboarding programmes, these co-living /coworking arrangements can build powerful teams and networks. Attracting older, experienced workers back into the workplace will become more important.

In this future world of work people will stay with organisations longer, be more engaged, happier and more productive.  

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