COVID-19 has brought how and where we work into sharp focus. People across the world have been working from home – some more successfully than others. Now that we’re seeing businesses reopen, many people are keen to get back to the office and the camaraderie that comes with it. But others are questioning the need – and the wisdom – of returning to their cubicles.
At Nous House – a network of Australian coworking spaces – we see a spectrum of businesses and employees every day, which gives us some insight into what people need from their workplace.
An article in the Australian (June ’20) reported that Sydney-based contracting company, Worley, plans to cut a number of its offices to realise millions of dollars in savings. It expects that some staff will work in the office all the time, others at home all the time, and some will move between the two. This raises the question: what approach to office space gives companies the flexibility they need for this new way of working?
Here’s how we see the office spaces of the future.
We’ll see businesses being more open to other models of managing their workplace. Working from home or in the office shouldn’t be the only options we think about. There is a third option which some companies are already investigating – a hybrid model using co-working spaces to complement offices and working from home arrangements. This hybrid workplace will become the new normal.
Richard Martin is one of Nous Houses’ members who’s exploring this approach. Richard is managing director of IMA Asia, a peer group forum for Asia CEOs and senior executives. He sees the workplace issue from both sides – as a frequent user of co-working spaces both here and overseas, including Nous House in Sydney, and as a sounding board for IMA Asia’s multinational members.
He believes COVID will be a step-change in the way we work.
“A few months ago I would have said COVID was not good for the future of co-working or hybrid working. But just last month our members started talking about reducing their commercial footprints by locating small teams in coworking or hybrid offices,” Richard said.
“They also talked about leasing out parts of their own sites to hybrid working – becoming an anchor tenant.
He says people will need offices, meeting rooms, and places they can do whiteboard work. But they want flexibility.
“We know we are going to need to be getting together in groups. In the future, however, companies might have six people in a co-working office, but only 3 at a time, and maybe not full days.”
Richard sees benefits to this that go way beyond the simple physical distancing that COVID demands. By sharing accommodation, companies will be able to break down walls with their suppliers and partners.
We’ll see businesses seeking ways to limit their fixed costs. During lockdown, COVID has meant that while staff are working at home, companies are still responsible for the overheads of maintaining an office – utility bills, leases, cleaning and more. When these costs are locked in, businesses may be forced to make severe cuts to staff and operations, cutting capacity to deliver on core work.
That’s why businesses are exploring creative options to stay viable. According to a Gartner survey of more than 300 CFOs and finance chiefs in the US, 74% would move at least 5% of their pre-COVID onsite workforce to remote locations. And nearly a quarter said they would move 20% to permanent remote work, such as coworking spaces.
However, many organisations still want to maintain a physical footprint in a city to show they’re an established presence. For David Barshevski, Managing Director at Meteocontrol Australia a multinational company, being a member of Nous House gives an address to increase its visibility to clients, while reducing rent and operating costs. His advice to other managing directors is to limit liabilities post-COVID. “In this respect, I would recommend a shared office.”
Irene Bennett, Commercial Operations Manager of global pharmaceutical company Theramex, agrees. Nous House gives them access to desk spaces, and meeting rooms for private client conversations, but at less financial risk.
“We are not personally responsible for the overheads – it’s good value to be somewhere like Nous House where they are taking care of that.”
“Everyone is under extreme cost pressure. We are all suffering to some degree … April and May were absolutely dire. So not having to sweat the cost has been a huge help.”
Coworking helps businesses manage their budget. Here at Nous House, when COVID hit, we worked with businesses to provide practical solutions such as offering members the chance to alter their membership type, providing support for appropriate distancing for members who needed meeting spaces. But the most useful response was that we paused membership, with no charges and no penalties. This allowed out members to assess their needs and take stock while working from home.
Physical distancing and hygiene
We will see less densely populated offices. There will be no more cramming cubicles together, or mass hot desking. And there will be limits on the number of people allowed in an elevator.
At the same time, post-COVID the budgets for office accommodation will be tightened. Businesses may be reluctant to outlay the costs of a much larger office that allows for constant physical distancing.
This is another situation where a hybrid working model delivers what businesses need. Staff can move between a central office or from a co-working space – sometimes all three in one week. People get a feeling of community while also being able to maintain physical distancing. They can work in a way that suits them – be as connected to others as they wish, and work independently when they want.
We’ll see performance measured by what people do, not where they are. We’ll see the decline of ‘presenteeism’, where being at your desk from 9-5 (and beyond) is a measure of productivity and commitment.
COVID has forced this change on us. Many companies that were reluctant to trial working from home or a remote office have now been forced to adapt.
If COVID has taught us anything about the way we work, it’s that everyone is different. Some thrive at home, with autonomy and flexibility over the hours they work. Others prefer the structure of an office environment.
According to Richard Martin, one of the biggest challenges faced as people were forced to work at home was managing mid-level executives.
“Working at home can affect productivity as well as well-being. It’s hard to manage this when they are scattered across the country or globe. Hybrid or coworking gives a third option – where managers can meet and discuss ideas but be closer to their homes.”
Changing our workplace to suit staff not only makes them more productive – it increases engagement and retention. Staff feel heard. They see that the organisation is responding to their needs. Engaging and retaining employees is going to be critical in maintaining competitive advantage in the years ahead.
People will always thrive on connection. They will be as keen as ever to share space – to learn from each other, bounce ideas or just enjoy a cuppa. Many people are working from home for the first time and struggle with the lack of separation between home and work. They are keen to get back to office to establish those boundaries, but they don’t necessarily want the same kind of office environment.
For Irene Bennet the feeling of community at Nous House Sydney is a major benefit.
“We are such a small team that it is good to have a wider community we can fit into. I know I can go to the kitchen and have a bit of a chat to people – it’s not lonely,” she said.
But while the community is vitally important, Irene also appreciates that Nous Group – a global consulting company – is an anchor tenant. This means the space is more professional than the typical co-working office. “I like an office space to be an office space. It’s important to err on the side of looking professional,” she says.
“For the company it’s also good that people are not isolated in their own little hole somewhere, they do have that shared community.”
The future of the workplace
Nous House has offices and co-working desks available in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. We welcome enquiries from companies who are looking for a hybrid, flexible way of working post-COVID.