The meaning of ‘workplace’ in a post-pandemic world

The future role of Corporate Real Estate in delivering ‘place’

At the heart of Corporate Real Estate is workplace: a hybrid word bringing together the ideas of “work” and “place”. This connection between work and place has been necessary since the beginning of time: to hunt, we had to go to the prey; to farm, we had to locate and tend to the land; to trade in goods we needed markets and shops and storage.

It was not until ‘administration’ became a job, and ‘offices’ were conceived, that the need for physical proximity really began to change in nature from the need for access to tools and resources into a need to communicate and collaborate in ever more complex processes.

At a stroke, the global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has resulted in countries around the world encouraging or compelling people to work from home. This sudden, external force acting on how we can work has resulted in rapid, and for many uncomfortable, change.

Working from home will, and possibly for many already has, become the new normal. Is it even possible to go back to how things were before?

This article picks out some conclusions from a paper submitted to the Corporate Real Estate Journal for publication this summer, and looks at this unintended ‘grand experiment’ in occupant experience – considering the interplay of corporate objectives, workplace strategy, and organizational psychology – to explore some of the likely challenges and opportunities of some of the possible new definitions of ‘workplace’.

Larger numbers of people have been working from home than ever before, and lots has been learned – from successes and failures. Yet the prevalent hook-line language from corporate real estate professional advisers is all about how to essentially go back. But back to what?

There is an opportunity to acknowledge that we now know that our previously office-based workforce is productively engaged working from home, are more productive then they were in the office, and that our offices are largely empty. First-principles tell us that workplace is necessary to:

  • provide tools required to carry out work;
  • provide a consistent, accessible location for customers or partners to access products or services; and
  • provide an environment conducive to specific people-centric organizational goals.

Understanding how the last of these principles translates into workplace design is complex, but there is a risk that this understanding is clouded by misconceptions from the past – things that worked in a pre-pandemic world (or at least, were tacitly believed to work).

A clear head will be required to recognize the impact both on the employers’ requirements for their workplaces, and the employees new expectations for their work styles. Many of the newly empowered employees who have now experienced first hand the work-life integration that is possible when home based may not want to ‘go back’. This gives them freedom to work for a more distant employer, in a more flexible way.

Combined with the undeniable effectiveness of remote collaborative working in achieving many goals that were previously thought only viable within an office – thanks in large part to technologies like video conferencing – leaders can no longer hide from the efficacy of home working. Instead, they are called to shift even further towards value-based leadership styles. Trust, empathy, personal connection, humility and listening have become amongst the most important skills for our leaders.

Return to the office will place new expectations and demands on technology infrastructure. Many offices are simply not able to accommodate the needs of applications like pervasive video conferencing across their firewall. This must be understood and addressed, and any stop-gap technology choices made must be reviewed and brought under proper governance.

The real estate asset class is also impacted. This is important for investors, but also for corporates. Everyone expects the post-pandemic world to have even more surplus office space than it did before, but this is likely to put downward pressure on value and rents which in turn could make that space harder to dispose of.

The focus on social distancing and infection control in the workplace may be a short-term focus, but longer term this is not sustainable. As we have discussed elsewhere on this site, most people will get Covid-19, and most people will recover and lead perfectly healthy lives afterwards. Whether or not there is a vaccine. Good hygiene practices, like washing our hands more, should stay, but the mass re-design of workplaces that seems to be the focus in a lot of organizations today is for a very short-term, tactical benefit. For example, not even hospital ICUs think that a ‘one-way system’ is a necessary part of infection control guidelines, despite having large numbers of other measures with proven efficacy.

When imagining the workplace in a post-pandemic world, the ideas of social distancing and infection control are no more important than they were before.

The new normal is unlikely to be the same as the old normal.

In the short term, it is highly desirable to take time to review what has been learned. Do not rush to get things “back to how they were” – take a beat and think about how things could be. Things are working now, there is no hurry. Use the time wisely.

The almost empty offices can then be repurposed however you need them to be. Or disposed of (market permitting). Think about the organizational outcomes you want and start from there – free from most assumptions, received wisdom, conventional thinking, and constraints of your previous workplace.

These offices are an opportunity – a gift: now is the time to take those bold ideas that were too radical or too disruptive to introduce before, and to bring them to life in these almost blank canvases.

More strategically, remember that social distancing and infection control is a short-term need – it is part of the problem, not part of the solution. If you do not believe that, then wait until there is more evidence and you can be sure of your decisions – as stated, there is no need to rush.

We can exploit what has been learned about building trust to reduce the time taken to form highly effective relationships, making it easier to have fluidly formed teams, working across different locations, to address business challenges.

Workplaces are now more than ever going to be a place of collaboration, creativity, and innovation. A place specifically for social interaction, to support people’s mental health and wellbeing, and to access the equipment that is not, yet, mobile.


For the details behind this article, including the evidence and references, please look out for the full paper in the Corporate Real Estate Journal later in the summer.

Photograph (c) Nicola Denley https://www.instagram.com/nicadenley/

Chris Lees

About Chris Lees

Mathematician, Workplace Strategist, Occupancy Analyst, Endurance Running Coach, Dementia Charity Trustee, Young People's Mental Health Parent Advisor and Entrepreneur.

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