If you are working a job that requires you to use a computer, you probably haven’t gone to the office much for the past year or so.
The Covid-19 crisis has propelled remote work from ‘uncommon practice’ to ‘globally accepted way of working’ in just a few months.
An estimated 56% of the United States workforce holds a job that is at least partially compatible with remote work — that’s a lot of people being able to work from home in their pajama pants!
Around the world, numbers show that 88% of business organisations encouraged or made it mandatory for their employees to work from home during the pandemic. Looking at these numbers, one can wonder what is to happen to the tall office buildings that were deserted (almost) overnight in March 2020.
Entire floors emptied of their teams, gone silent and dark. On the other hand, 2020 has seen the rise of a new form of meetings, which very few people have been able to escape from: virtual ones.
To the point that the number of Zoom users increased by no less than 2,900% from December 2019 to April 2020.
Thanks to the internet, our ways of working together have taken an unpredictably radical turn towards more virtual interaction (and colleagues’ voices resonating in our own living rooms on a Tuesday morning).
How will real estate bounce back from this shift? Has Covid-19 signed the open floor plan’s death certificate? Will our children look back at office coffee machines wondering what they were for? (Gossip, obviously).
Let’s take a look at the future of the workplace, from a real estate point of view.
Deserted offices, what will you become?
Most big cities’ vibrant life was cut short as the Covid-19 crisis forced the global population to stay home. Overnight, city centers were emptied, shops were closed, and office buildings were deserted. A year after the first lockdown, office buildings are still pretty uncrowded.
Some companies have realised that they no longer require big floor plans and real estate assets to keep operating: by working online they have been able to maintain or increase their sales, while reducing their facilities and maintenance costs.says Francesca Heathcote, Executive Director of the MSc in Real Estate at ESCP
“While the current trend seems to be shifting to a hybrid working model, the true impact of Covid-19 on our work environments is yet to be seen. What is clear is that new technologies are being implemented globally across all types of businesses and that real estate is a very resilient and resourceful industry that reinvents and readapts with time to respond to a very wide demand of needs. Should spaces become deserted, I believe new types of activities will populate them.”
Since the beginning of 2020, office-focused listed real estate companies have been the worst-performing segment in the industry, in terms of return on investment.
A trend confirmed by Francesca Heathcote: “In some cities, rents are dropping and many spaces are currently vacant. While this is indeed an extremely difficult situation, for many real estate visionaries, it also represents an opportunity for new investments and changes of use/activity within these spaces. Somehow, we are going through a very interesting moment in which ideas are fermenting, waiting to happen and to be materialised.”
Who knows, maybe 40 Wall Street will be used for emergency housing one day.
The rise of regional hubs and coworking spaces
If tall office buildings and large open floor plans are on the decline due to the health crisis, companies are thinking of new ways to regroup and have their employees work together.
With the rise of remote work, the workplace is less inhabited than ever — a trend that might settle in for the long run, as 80% of workers say they’d rather keep on working from home at least some of the time.
For companies, this means less space is needed on a daily basis. Hence, the next few years could see the rise of regional hubs (smaller office buildings in a variety of places) and opportunities for coworking spaces (which actually suffered more from the crisis than they benefited (until now).
The decentralisation enabled by regional hubs would allow employees to gather for meetings every once in a while, touch base with coworkers, while decreasing real estate costs for the company. The flexibility provided by coworking spaces holds the same benefits, especially for smaller companies or start-ups who don’t have the seed capital to invest in real estate or make rent a major expenditure.
Hold your breath: the virtual workplace is coming (VR)
Have you ever dreamt of having your office at the top of the Empire State Building?
Your dream might just come true, thanks to VR. Or, well, you might at least get a virtual office of some kind in the coming years. In 2020, Facebook announced a new virtual experience software dedicated to… the home office.
Surfing on the work from home trend, the internet giant introduced “Infinite Office”, a virtual reality tool promising to make work from home a lot more immersive.
By simply putting on a VR headset, Infinite Office transports you to your own virtual office space, with as many customisable screens as you wish and intuitive features to make work easier.
3D virtual meetings may also become an everyday thing, thanks to Spatial, a tool that enables 3D video chat and incorporates Slack-like features.
This same technology, when combined with Facebook’s Infinite Office, provides workers with the possibility to have a full virtual experience, or to combine their workspace with their actual surroundings.
Be ready for your boss to just pop up in the middle of your living room. Sounds like a dream? Well, it might just become your (virtual) reality.