How we live and work has been subject to a once-in-a-generation re-evaluation as a result of the pandemic. It would hardly have been believable two years ago, but we now know we don’t need to be tied to a desk all week to be productive. Employees strongly value the flexibility working from home brings to their lives, especially the additional hours it allows them to spend with family and friends. But, at the same time, we know that, as social creatures, humans have fundamental needs to interact, collaborate and create. Throughout history, the ability to collaborate in complex ways through social interaction has been the determining factor in human achievement. I wholeheartedly believe this cannot be replicated through fully remote working.
So, as is so often the case in almost all intelligent debates, the answer isn’t binary. We don’t need to choose between office and home working. We need to listen to employees, aim for a balanced, informed approach to meeting their needs, and rethink the purpose of offices, not just as places to work, but as spaces that enrich people’s lives, fuelling their ability to achieve, create and find inspiration in interaction.
Mental health at work – what the statistics say
These dynamics don’t just exist as rhetoric. They are supported by statistics. Mental health charity Mind’s research shows work is the biggest stressor in our lives, while stats from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) evidence a nearly 60% increase in workers reporting stress because of their jobs since 2002. If this isn’t a huge rallying call to office developers and employers alike to up their game, I don’t know what is.
While many surveys cite workers’ support for the flexibility WFH offers, the numbers don’t suggest a clear cut a rejection of office working. A survey from Hubble, a hybrid working consultancy, shows that 70% of workers polled have had a positive experience of working form home, and that 86% would like to continue working remotely at least one day a week. Dig a little deeper though and further surveys from Hubble show that a huge 79% of those polled listed the lack of commute as the best thing about working from home. It was the most popular response by a long way. At the same time, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) surveyed workers and found 67% of home workers feel less connected to colleagues, while 56% of home workers find it harder to switch off. Echoing these results, remote meetings app Volley found that 7 in 10 workers are feeling more isolated since switching to remote work. Finally, research from workspace app Kadence found that 81% of 18-34 year olds say they would feel isolated or lonely without the office. This is the young talent companies need to be nurturing if they want to develop sustainable pathways to future success.
What these numbers show is that while workers want to keep the flexibility they have gained through the pandemic, they do not want to lose the connection to their colleagues that office working provides, nor the social interaction that helps them to thrive. The office debate therefore isn’t about whether offices have a future, it’s about what that future looks like.
Future offices need to be creative sanctuaries, not prison sentences
Insights from Estates’ Gazette’s panel on future offices at MIPIM 2022 hit the nail on the head. We need to create spaces that people are excited to visit, not that they have to endure. Offices should be creative sanctuaries, not prison sentences. What does this mean in practice? It means configuring future offices to provide spaces that people enjoy – offering leisure amenities, relaxation spaces, social hubs, health and fitness facilities and ample green spaces that boost wellbeing, providing soulful areas for contemplation and reflection. Underpinning that needs to be next gen digital infrastructure, so that colleagues can easily connect, physically and digitally. We need to move away from seeing these office features as distractions, nice to haves or additional cost centres businesses must struggle with. Instead, we must embrace the idea that employee wellbeing always improves productivity, attracts talent, and creates an environment where businesses and individuals can thrive sustainably. Work needs to make our lives better. A big part of that is about intelligent office design that meets the needs of workers individually and collectively.
These principles underpin our development of Wells House, Bromley, the first phase of our regeneration of Elmfield Road. This scheme aims to provide a buzzing, creative hub, with flexible, configurable workspaces and some of the most ambitious examples of urban greening ever attempted in the UK. At the same time, we’ve thought hard about our portfolio in the context of how and where modern employees want to live. That’s why we’ve chosen boroughs like Bromley, which offer easy access to cosmopolitan London, but with more living space in the context of high London house prices. We are seeing more and more professionals chose these areas in recent years, and residential developers rallying to meet increased demand for new housing in suburbia and London satellite towns. Providing office hubs in these places is a targeted approach to reducing unpopular, lengthy commutes, by offering grade A office space closer to where people live. Again, this is decision grounded in a desire to make work a positive force for wellbeing. And, again this approach is born out by the data. Research from the Instant Group in 2021 shows that 57% of employees want offices nearer their homes, while a huge 77% say a more conveniently located office is a ‘must-have’ for their next role.
While post-pandemic working trends will take some time to play out given the seismic impact Covid19 has had on all elements of modern society, three things are clear. Firstly, we are never going back to inflexible working patterns. Employees won’t stand for it. Secondly, far from reducing the importance of the office, extended working from home has in many ways enhanced people’s understanding of the value of in person collaboration to our mental health. Thirdly, offices must change, becoming places than we enjoy visiting because they enrich, enable and empower us. These trends have underpinned our investment in UK office space since we established our portfolio pre-pandemic and they are even more relevant today.
John Baker, CEO of The Commercial Park Group