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Rethinking real estate for the workplace of the future? 5 trends caught out by COVID.

October 12, 2020 / United Kingdom

Expectations around office space have been shifting for years. Many big-name businesses have been rethinking their real estate, pouring time and money into creating home-from-home office environments to power engagement and productivity.

Cramped cubicles in close quarters have often been relegated to the past. Instead, a shift towards huge, open spaces that feel relaxed and inviting. Large communal workspaces to promote collaboration. Abundant social spaces to foster wellbeing.

But now, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, these office facilities have maybe become irrelevant – if not actively detrimental to the people and business outcomes they were designed to support. 

What new facilities maintenance challenges has COVID-19 created?

#1 – Hot desking 

Before COVID, 54% of UK employees felt hot desking made office spaces more welcoming – and 46% felt it increased productivity. Paired with dramatic cost-savings – hot desking can reduce office costs by 30% – it’s no surprise that more than half of employers were considering the trend

But the effectiveness of hot desking has been questioned for a while. Even before the pandemic, 67% of workers expressed dissatisfaction at the lack of personal space hot desking entails.  

The pandemic has emphasised questions of personal space that are likely to change expectations around cleanliness and safety. These changing expectations could see employees going cold on hot desking for good.  

#2 – Communal workspaces

Like hot desking, communal workspaces are touted as offering productivity gains by facilitating collaboration and boosting engagement. 

But also like hot desking, they rely on employees wanting to share space. Perhaps with COVID-19, we’ll see more people wanting to work alone. 

Or, on the other hand, the trend could go the other way. Workplace loneliness is already a major issue in the UK, and coronavirus is expected to exacerbate the problem. Employees could be eager to return to communal, social working if employers prove they’re taking measures to make doing so feel safe. 

#3 – Huge offices

74% of UK employees say they’d prefer hybrid working post-COVID. Equally, 77% of C-level and executive managers believe the business will benefit from allowing flexible working.
If that trend plays out, huge offices to accommodate the entire workforce won’t be necessary – or cost-efficient. The use of flexible office space could increase dramatically. 

#4 – Central locations

In 2019, 58% of UK office workers preferred to spend the majority of working time in city centres. But will employees feel this way much longer?

Before the pandemic, 3.7 million workers spent two hours or more commuting every weekday. For many,  the new two-minute commute from bed-to-desk has highlighted that the grass really is greener without the long travel times.

Plus there’s a possible safety implication for workers who rely on public transport (17% of UK workers – and 58% of London workers – used public transport to commute in 2018). Will those employees be willing to commute, possibly for hours, possibly in crowded spaces, into a central office post COVID?  

With office vacancy rates declining for years, perhaps COVID-19 has accelerated the trend towards flexible office space rather than long-term central leases.    

#5 – Corporate kitchens

Keeping employees well-fed is crucial to wellbeing, engagement and productivity – but are corporate kitchens the best way? 

With new emphasis on personal space and hygiene, employees might no longer feel comfortable and safe in communal kitchens. 

Also, many businesses will need to rethink how they use those spaces – for instance, with strict rotas and footfall policies – which could make kitchens impractical to use at scale.

Perhaps hungry, hard-working employees will prefer to order food in than queue for their whole lunch break to get into the corporate kitchen, for example. Or order food with their work friends, rather than eat according to a pre-defined rota.

Also, if hybrid work continues, full in-house catering services may not be an efficient use of budget. 

It might make more sense for businesses to use technology to allocate individual meals budgets, so employees can feed themselves as suits their preferences, while businesses keep tight control over costs.

This blog is part of The team that Eats together initiative, a content series exploring what normal looks like now, and how to enhance the working world to meet evolved employee expectations.

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The views and opinions expressed are based on the research conducted and they do not intend to present an official policy of Uber or any of its subsidiaries. Examples of advice mentioned in this article are based on open source information and assumptions made within the article are not reflective of Uber’s position.