Winds of Change: Rethinking The Post-Pandemic Office (And Why Coworking Is Ahead Of The Game)

Today is officially a Typhoon Day as Higos skirts Hong Kong, but it seems very different to the ones that most of us are used to. Forget the movie marathons and board games; in today’s world, being forced to remain in our homes is no longer much of a change to the usual routine. My husband and I are at work on the sofa while the kids are busy with online schooling, just another regular day courtesy of Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet. As I sit and gaze out of my rain-lashed window, it occurs to me that the pandemic has dramatically altered our perception of our workday structure, so much so that this much-quoted “new normal” will start to have an impact on the way offices are designed and function in the coming months and years.

Much of the remote-working technology that we have all become accustomed to over the past six months has of course been in use for many years now. The 2012 recession was when our own household first became aware of it, as international businesses tightened their purse strings and put a hold on business travel as much as they could. Why suffer the cost of air tickets, hotels and expenses, not to mention the time taken away from the home office, when everyone could just meet up online instead? But as soon as the economy started to recover, business travel started up again. Virtual meetings could be awkward and clumsy, and people felt too self-conscious jumping in with a comment. The technological equivalents of meetings were decried as no equivalent at all, and seemed destined to remain a last resort. 

The recently reported experiences of people working from home during the government’s social distancing and lockdown measures appear to show that physically going into an office has a similar pull on us. Stuck at home, people have consistently reported feelings of frustration, isolation and disengagement, and have craved face-to-face interaction with their colleagues. Forget sitting in your cubicle staring at your computer screen; the real purpose of an office is to meet and collaborate with colleagues, to be inspired, to define a culture within your company that you feel connected to and that strengthens the social bonds within your team. These are the things that are vital to a company’s success and longevity. 

So it appears that there are two opposing forces at work here that the workplaces of the future are going to have to figure out how to balance. On the one hand, remote-working and remote-meeting technology has suddenly become normalised due to enforced long-term use. While we still don’t love it, we’ve learned how to use it effectively, it no longer makes us feel awkward, and it has excited CFOs around the world with its implications for cutting expenses. On the other hand, the same technology has shone a light on our human need for face-to-face communication, revealing just how important direct collaboration is in building business and in particular, driving new business. The future of the office depends on where we find the balance between these two pulls.

It’s clear that the vast majority of businesses today are suffering financially, with many in survival mode, cutting costs wherever they can. The removal of the 9am-6pm office hours structure and increasing office workers’ flexibility could be one way of reducing costs without losing staff. If the office is used primarily as a meeting space, to collaborate and interact with colleagues, many employees may only need to come into the office for specific meetings, scheduled on certain days. Fewer allocated personal desks and offices may then be required, as more people opt to do their “desk work” from home instead. If they do need to work privately while in the office, a number of shared desks could provide for this purpose. The end result is a reduction in the overall office space required and a reduced rent.

If this sounds unrealistic, perhaps consider that this is the exact system that is used by the coworking industry. Coworking is centered around the concept of providing flexible office space; meeting rooms and break-out spaces for those important face-to-face interactions, a selection of private offices or dedicated desks for those who need them and shared hotdesks for those who don’t. This is one reason why people who write off coworking spaces as a glorified Starbucks are missing the point. They excel in providing companies with everything they need to enable staff to structure their working day exactly as they need to; a finely-honed balance of quiet workspaces and collaborative zones where team members can come and go as they desire.

There are other issues that offices are having to find solutions for post-pandemic that coworking has already figured out. As the operators of Banyan Workspace, a luxury boutique coworking and events venue in Quarry Bay, we know a shared workspace means increased sanitisation requirements, and our thorough cleaning regimen has been built into our daily routines long before the pandemic demanded it. The entire space is also designed to be completely flexible, with areas for members to variously meet, chat, phone, present, teach or work privately as they require. Desks can be divided into private sections or opened up for meetings, lockers allow members to keep personal belongings safe, and every area is equipped with electrical sockets and USB ports. In short, we provide exactly the type of workspace that companies are contemplating for the new flexible office structure that is emerging from lockdown.

There will inevitably be tweaking needed, as businesses learn what does and doesn’t work for their specific culture or industry. Private offices and coworking operators will have to learn to pivot rapidly depending on both how the technology evolves and how people use it. This is where coworking actually has the edge over a private office; as early adopters, they are able to experiment with new office solutions that can be used by people working in different businesses and industries, gaining a more rapid understanding of how they  can be used in different ways. The idea of an in-house Media Room, for example, is something that is currently being touted as an office requirement of the future; a filming hub complete with camera, mics and a green screen that people can book for live presentations and webinars. A single company would be unlikely to spend money on such a room, but a coworking space could feasibly reap the benefits of such an investment.

Striking the balance between remote working and office working might sound challenging, but Typhoon Days (and pandemics) show how easily we adjust. If our offices start to adjust alongside us, we can hopefully reap some of the benefits of the global WFH experiment without sacrificing what we love about “going to work”. There is a systemic change on the horizon and we are heading towards it at a rapid pace. And if you are working from a coworking space, you are already a step ahead.

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