Why, post-pandemic, the office will be distributed – not dead

Remote work is here to stay. But, it won’t be synonymous with at-home, nor will it be a case of all-or-nothing. That, in short, was the conclusion of our #FrameLive discussion on post-pandemic workspace design. So, what will the future of work look like? Panellist Ramon Beijen, creative director of commercial real estate firm CBRE, believes that even though work will become more local, people still need to get out of their houses sometimes and therefore, workspaces will be increasingly dispersed across spatial typologies.

‘We’ve already signalled a growth in satellite co-working spaces that serve the OOO workforce,' Beijen says, 'and the COVID-19 crisis will only accelerate this growth. A more distributed and decentralized approach towards office space is likely to persist.’ An occupier survey CBRE recently conducted among 126 senior-level global real estate executives aimed at determining how the COVID-19 pandemic will change the location, design and use of office space, substantiates Beijen’s statements. When asked about their long-term workspace strategies, which 70 per cent of respondents were confident in formulating, one-quarter indicated they are exploring suburban satellite strategies and 73 per cent of respondents expect flexible office space will play some role in future strategy.

Will there still be a place for the urban headquarter within the ‘new normal’?

What does that mean for the traditionally highly sought after, easy-access urban headquarter? Will there still be a place for such central work cores within the ‘new normal’? Maybe. But not in their traditional role – or size. Perhaps surprisingly, less than one in 10 companies that responded to CBRE’s 2020 Global Occupier Sentiment Survey considered leaving high-density urban cores, even though ‘these highly dense mass-transit-oriented urban cores have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, causing lingering health concerns about returning to the office'. The conclusion drawn from the survey states that ‘the role of the city centre headquarters likely won’t disappear, but employees will have more choice over where they work. City locations may serve as a more transient cultural base for employees in a broader real estate footprint that may include an employees’ home working environment and satellite locations near workforce population clusters’. 

Envisioning the future of the workplace, Portland-based studio West of West conceptualized an office that functions as a flagship space for company events, meetings, and group collaboration while individual work remains at home. ‘In the future flexibility will be critical,’ say West of West’s principals Clayton Taylor and Jai Kumaran. 'By creating an environment different from what employees experience at home the workplace is transformed into a destination, a resilient collage of flexible spaces that can be used in new ways both now and into the future.’

Such satellite locations can live in, or be complemented by, flex venues. ‘Flexible office space providers,’ the report states, ‘are expected emerge from this recessionary period [referring to the COVID-19 era] as stronger and better regarded than before.’ And the first signs of that tendency are already here. WeWork, for example, is capitalizing on the demand for flexible office space resulting from the pandemic. The co-working brand’s recently released statement about the ways in which they can help businesses integrate flexibility into their workplace strategy emphasizes the benefits of decentralization, too. ‘By having multiple satellite offices in a city, you’ll shorten commutes for distributed teams while providing a space for collaboration,’ it reads. Although this statement of course is part of a marketing pitch meant to promote the co-working brand’s 800+ locations, the idea of adopting flex venues is projected to be heeded. WeWork, the company’s chairman Marcelo Claure told the Financial Times, is set to see positive cash flow and profits in 2021.

Seeing that worker flexibility increases, so too must the flexibility of the office that supports them

For those developing and designing office space today, CBRE believes it’s important to realize that ‘the flexibility to manage work routines between a network of places (including home) will lead the most sought-after employees to be discerning about where they work and why’. That means creating an attractive office space, even when used to a lesser extent, is now more important than ever. Seeing that worker flexibility increases, so too must the flexibility of the office that supports them. And giving that ever more agile workforce even more agency over the workspaces they chose to inhabit will be key.


Read our series on how COVID-19 could impact workplace design here.

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