Offices are completely empty. Now what?

July 19, 2021

The space opportunity is large for companies that think new. The office buildings have been empty for the past year. We can now see a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel — so what happens now?

By Jørgen Chr. Flaa & Eirik Bjørnstad

Over the past year, we have received many revelations. The vast majority of work tasks can be performed from home. Parents of young children have felt that the time constraint has disappeared. Do we really miss colleagues or social contact? Many companies deliver great results with the entire workforce in the home office. All of this helps to change the way we look at the office.

Visionary decision-makers have now an opportunity to redefine what a workplace is. There is an obvious potential for both employers and employees, and not least for the environment. Employers can rent smaller areas. Employees can have greater flexibility to work where they are most efficient. If business trips to the cities are reduced, there may be less need for road developments.

We still need meeting places and workplaces but in a different and more flexible form. We are not going back to the 90s ideal. Many desks are stacked into office landscapes that no one misses. The companies must map the work processes and the needs of the employees, or perhaps employees themselves can define how and where they work best? There is no excuse for not seizing the opportunity — the potential is too great.

Home office? No thanks

Doing nothing is not a lasting solution. A recent survey showed that two out of three workers want to work from home a few days a week, and this will lead to even more sparse offices than before the pandemic. Not many are interested in going back to a working environment that is missing an exchange of competence in a sea of empty desks.

One consequence of this is that both tenants and landlords must have better control over how the areas are utilized. When the use of the areas is less static, the heart is pounding to a much greater extent than before. Tenants and landlords should invest in systems that give them insight into the use of space. Decision-makers should have a close relationship with the trends that show how the demand for space changes over time so that they always rent the correct “amount” of space.

An important keyword is flexibility. No decision-maker with experience from the past year will copy the requirements specification from the previous time. Tenants today demand flexible areas to a much greater extent than before, so landlords must have good control over how their buildings are used in order to be able to offer this flexibility.

The graph above shows the use of all floors in the office building Karvesvingen 5, Oslo Norway, through a typical week.

A shift towards a more dynamic use of buildings is not culturally easy. You must have the organization with you. Those who take this too lightly are likely to fail. Employers will be able to reduce costs, but it is probably wise to give something back to the employees. If the workplace is now to become a meeting place, the quality should be increased. The remaining areas must contribute to the employees wanting to return to work. Many have already had a work desk and a screen at home in the living room or in the kitchen.

Adapted to the individual

From what this looks like today, it will certainly vary a lot from organization to organization. There are already several examples that can give hints on how the future might look like. Ernst & Young has entered into an agreement with Schage Eiendom and Spaces on a flexible model when they move to Stortorvet in 2023 with a combination of fixed areas and coworking. Höegh Eiendom has launched a hybrid model where Ö will also offer flexibility to large tenants. Most coworking actors are planning expansions. Orbit Technology’s ambition is to gather all workplaces and meeting places in one digital platform. In central Oslo alone, there are over 14,000 coworking places and over 30% of these are currently empty. OBOS launches the local office concept where members can stroll down to the office community and have their social needs met by neighbors in adapted workplaces without having to travel into the office. Politicians have argued that government employees can live wherever they want without the obligation to meet in a centralized office in the cities.

In many ways, the pandemic has partially short-circuited the city as a marketplace. The Colonial car picks up food, small electronics, and toys from Sprell taken straight from the main warehouse at Lørenskog. Conferences, cooking classes, and yoga classes are streamed on Teams and all office employees sell their classes straight from the kitchen counter. There are reports of emigration from Oslo and more people want to settle further away from the cities.

The model for the office of the future is uncertain. Now, however, the opportunity is there to create a model that contributes to more satisfied employees, reduced costs and major environmental benefits. If there is no active work to understand the changes, organizations risk their office becoming like the video store on the corner — We miss it sometimes, but in the end, what came after was so incredibly much better.

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