The future of commercial properties, flexible spaces

Cheryl Adamson reports on how Covid-19 has impacted on our approach to working space, work and the workplace itself. Will office space ever be the same?

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed how we live, work and play, having an indelible impact on every facet of our lives. Like so many industries, 2020 was a difficult year for the commercial property sector – with more people continuing to work from home and companies downsizing, many businesses have been trying to extract themselves from onerous leases or thinking about reconfiguring their space.

As Winston Churchill famously said “never let a good crisis go to waste” – this is because challenging times can be pivotal moments for growth or meaningful change. What we have learned from COVID, particularly from a work perspective, is that whilst it hasn’t been friendly to micro-managers, control freaks and those working from home with small children, there’s still a desire for a certain amount of interaction to maintain that corporate culture. The big question is, where is the happy medium?

Striking that balance

According to a survey by office fit-out providers Europlan, a trend that is likely to continue is for people to have a foot in both camps, with over 60 percent of employees doing a mix of working from home as well as in the office.

The survey canvassed a range of views on remote working from over 130 businesses based around New Zealand. While there were mixed views on how much time would be ideal in the office vs at home, a number of respondents felt that they were missing an integral part of their role by spending so much time away from their team. Being able to work in a collaborative environment has proven to be incredibly beneficial for employee productivity and gratification.

In terms of flexibility, smaller businesses appear to be better suited to enabling this change in workspaces. Trusting staff to work remotely where possible is becoming a critical part of the workplace culture too.

Co-working spaces will be more fluid

Even before COVID, there were already many corporate office spaces catering to hot desking and designated meeting rooms, while eliminating all office personalisation into a locked cubicle. With the rise in virtual meetings likely to continue, there may be a desire for more fit-for-purpose, tech-enabled rooms that contrast with quiet spaces to write and community spaces to connect.

Managing director of Europlan, Paul van Dorsten says, “Offices may see an increasing trend to using more flexible and fluid collaborative spaces. The way we design workspaces in the coming years, as more and more of the labour force work remotely for some or all of their employment, is likely to change. We suspect there will be a clear division between the type of work completed in the office, and that completed at home.

“For many, the workplace will become the hub for meetings, socialising and collaborative activities that can be configured by people as required. In comparison, home offices will become areas of focused, intensive work where individuals can dive into projects relatively uninterrupted.”

Whilst the shared working space model has proven to generate favourable business results, it takes time and commitment to ensure that these environments are collectively beneficial. Nick Healy, co-owner of Textile Lofts, a premium shared office space in Parnell, says that co-working spaces must have certain attributes to work.

“Firstly, it’s important to distinguish yourself; you have to cultivate a culture of like-minded businesses together. In our premise our tenants are proud to be there, they move into the space for the added benefits of cross collaboration in their particular niche.”

Nevertheless, Nick has seen a number of co-working spaces come and go in recent years and points out that the model can get expensive.

“The rental level is a fine balance to get right and there is a point at which it no longer works. Each premise would have its own break-even occupancy level, and obviously there are economies of scale, as well as lease terms which need to be far more flexible these days.”

Co-working spaces that inspire innovation

One of the reasons why shared working environments have become much more than just a fringe trend, is because of the value that is created when like-minded individuals from different industries foster great relationships and share innovative ideas.

The Icehouse has operated a successful incubator space in Parnell since 2001 and its Head of Operations, Scott Turner, says that integrating a mix of start-ups and SME business owners in one working environment allows for the sharing of different ideas and perspectives. This can enhance the value of any company or start-up by creating an opportunity for knowledge, expertise and insights to be shared around in a room full of different personalities and skill sets.

There is no one size fits all approach, the future of flexible space options is limitless. In easily accessible city-fringe locations such as Parnell, there are a range of flexible options to enhance business value through shared working spaces. In our bustling environment, incubators such as The Icehouse and large corporates devoting coworking space, such as Rewired in the offices of Xero, are excellent examples of how connectivity and cohesion are in demand.

Although they are often viewed as spaces that generate innovation, collaboration and community, there’s been relatively little research on their design. What we do know, and what is perhaps most important, is that the future of shared working environments supports connection, boosts productivity and inspires employees.

There’s no denying that this pandemic will affect how we interact for a while to come, which means this will undoubtedly have an impact on the way we approach space, work and the workplace itself. COVID-19 has accelerated what may have taken another five years for people to realise about flexible office space and, more importantly, office space in general.

Above all else, this has forced us to reimagine the office concept with long-term leases, centralised office locations and rigid working conditions becoming a thing of the past – making way for flexibility and a new hybrid way of working being the way of the future.

As printed in the NZ Business – Monday 03 May 2021

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