Flexible working in 2021: insights for the commercial property sector

Pensive woman working at home

Written by Alan Pepper, CFO/COO, essensys plc

The past 12 months have certainly been turbulent but it’s clear that more flexible working will undoubtedly be one of the legacies of the pandemic. Already 82 per cent of UK businesses are considering changing future working practices to allow staff to work more flexibly. There has also been a re-evaluation of traditional workspace. Commercial real estate landlords and flexible workspace operators will have to evolve their offerings to remain relevant. Many already are. The office is now competing with the home, and other ‘third place’ work environments in a way no-one could have predicted a year ago. The office experience of tomorrow needs to be amenity rich and friction free, with everything from lighting to desks, Wi-Fi to coffee, needing to be more enhanced than the domestic equivalent.

Location, location, location

City centres once buzzing with people have become virtual ghost towns, at least for the short term. Staff and businesses have embraced working from home more than anyone could have expected; and this has driven a re-evaluation of where and how staff carry out their work. The proportion of buyers within London postcodes registering with estate agencies outside of the capital almost doubled last April, with rural house hunting becoming all the rage.

Savvy commercial workspace operators are now following the trend and actively looking at a more regionally based strategy around traditional commuter towns, as bigger corporate occupiers follow suit.

That said, core city centres are more than just about where people work – they provide amenities, experiences, social interaction and allow collaboration that is difficult, if not impossible, remotely.

The office is not dead

Video call fatigue and constant working from home have taken their toll, however, and underlying office occupancy was already increasing in the final quarter of 2020. Not everyone has the luxury of a home office or space away from family to work effectively. Flat sharers, parents of young children and people living on their own will have found the loneliness, distraction, and relentlessness of constant working from home, along with the lack of social contact with their peers, a challenge.  Those recently entering the workforce or undergoing a professional development role with ‘on the job’ training will have suffered from the lack of that day-to-day engagement.  Plenty of workers are just not ‘wired’ to work from home; many activities are not best suited to being done remotely, and plenty are substantially less efficient. Most, if not all, of those of us forced to work from home will have suffered from lack of social contact.

These all mean that use of the office will continue – albeit differently.  Corporate occupiers of all sizes are re-evaluating their working arrangements and office requirements; and will continue to do so over time.  The need for agility, varied locations, flexible terms, and turnkey solutions should mean that flexible workspace options are increasingly the default option.

Enhancing occupier experience

2021 will require workspace providers to enhance experiences, to attract and retain new occupiers. Key to this will be ensuring these experiences are as frictionless as possible. To meet evolving demands, offices and workspaces should continue to look towards the hotel sector. Hotels are experts in onboarding customers quickly and easily, whilst providing a range of customer-focussed amenities. Workspaces need to do the same for their occupiers. An enhanced, turnkey, connected experience will not only attract occupiers to workspaces, but will in turn help those occupiers attract and retain talent. The cost to acquire new occupiers is high and therefore retention by way of experience, not just location, will be key.

It is also important to be prepared for the return of workers. While some element of social distancing is likely to remain, we are a social species.  Despite the appeal of swapping the suit for a sports kit, most employees are desperate to return to the social setting of the office – even if it is not full time. But there will nevertheless be a need for encouragement.  If they have not already, workspace providers and employers will need to make the office a safe and compelling experience, in the right location, to bring employees back.

Time to get smart

Adopting the right technology in 2021 is also going to be key – with an increasing use of underlying data to inform decisions.  Office management systems, meeting room and desk booking tools, and door access systems will all become ‘table stakes’- and need to talk to one another. The experience needs to be fast, reliable, and as frictionless as possible. Artificial intelligence (AI) will be used to good effect to better predict and fulfil a worker’s needs – automating room bookings, for instance. Smart offices will use sensors for real-time heatmaps to direct occupiers towards less populated areas and minimise carbon footprint by only heating occupied areas.

Ensuring that you are offering the right technology to staff is also important. There has been a marked shift towards Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and space-as-a-service platforms, which are driving the demand for cloud-based tools and systems. Even cash-rich tenants are unwilling to make long-term investments in the current climate and will continue to opt for an as-a-service pricing model – a trend which will continue throughout 2021. A continued and increasing use of such tools mean that it will be ever more crucial to provide appropriate technology infrastructure, capacity, and security for occupiers.

For obvious reasons, creating a workspace where workers can seamlessly and securely interact with the environment through the touchless capabilities of their existing smartphone is also important. From a simple tap, workers can gain access to offices, lockers, and meeting rooms and amenity information.  By placing all member services within a single app, workspace providers can create a frictionless experience for the user that both enhances their space and unifies their various activities.

Providing a rich, productive environment

The global lockdown also taught us the importance of robust collaboration tools. More than anything, technology needs to keep workers productive and agile. However, enabling collaboration in a hybrid way of working is not easy. Anyone who has shared an office with multiple co-workers on different video calls will attest to how disruptive this can be.

To avoid having empty space on their hands, landlords must ensure they stay relevant in these changing times. They must be flexible themselves, and provide the solutions required by business leaders to manage a hybridised workforce. The way we all work has changed forever. To remain relevant, office workspace operators must provide environments rich in value added services.

Hybrid working is the new norm. It is not just about getting workers through the doors but providing tools and an environment for remote workers so they feel involved and connected.

Security is paramount

Any experience needs to be secure, and whilst physical security and safety requirements have been highlighted by the pandemic, digital security is now even higher up corporate agendas than previously, particularly in areas they don’t directly control. It is crucial that landlords and space providers get digital infrastructure right and provide a robust platform that a space’s technology can be built upon. With the country now in another national lockdown it is vital steps are taken to defend against cybercrime, particularly around remote working. Two-thirds of UK companies (65%) say they have been exposed to a cyberattack.

Coupled with the fact that cloud-based application adoption continues to rise, space providers must provide enterprise-grade infrastructure and digital security measures that meet the needs of different tenant requirements.