Are offices still relevant in a post-covid world?

Diverse concentrated successful young businesspeople workday in modern office.

With the arrival of Covid-19, the vast majority of us have been working from home for the past few months. Far from being a huge disaster, working from home has led many of us to question the relevance of the physical office.

Working from home provides a good work-life balance, cuts down on the commute, and saves businesses money. But Johnathan Ransom, Co-founder of Square Mile Farms asks are we missing out on something crucial?

What seems clear is that the coronavirus lockdown has changed our relationship with the physical office and workers. Businesses holding back from allowing remote working now have no excuse not to offer more flexible working options.

However, as this interesting new report from JLL highlights, it’s misguided to think that remote working means the end of the office. Just because you can cook a nice meal at home doesn’t mean you’ll never go to a restaurant again. There’s something about a restaurant that feels good. It’s an experience, a way to socialise and bond with one another, and provides an inspiring change of scenery.

This can be similar to the experience of going into an office. It has the potential to be an inspiring place, full of social interaction and ideation. It can create a positive atmosphere and energy, helping to keep employees happy and healthy.
As the JJL report points out, many people like going into the office because it provides “human interaction, socializing with colleagues” and “collective face-to-face work that favors [sic] common understanding”.

In fact, while home working has provided some benefits, employees seem frustrated at their inability to simply pick up a pen and physically illustrate their point. Instead, they need long meetings and workarounds to get their point across, wasting time and building frustration. Understanding isn’t as quick or as reliable, leading to miscommunication and mistakes.

What’s more, there isn’t the same social interaction and connection. All those casual water-cooler conversations don’t happen as much via Zoom, disconnecting people from the human element that makes brands what they are.
Feedback from key players within the office real estate industry supports this feeling. According to Landsec, British Land and JLL, demand for office space in London continues unabated. British Land describes the energy and passion that in-person collaboration fosters as the “lifeblood of any business”, driving innovation and creativity.

In-person interactions also help strengthen corporate culture, as pointed out by JLL. A shared space helps create a common culture, with company branding and other visual reminders keeping everyone involved in the brand. This can be an incredibly powerful yet often overlooked experience, especially for Millennials who crave meaning in their work.

According to a number of recent surveys, Millennials place great importance on a business’s “purpose” and “social contribution”. It is incredibly difficult to engender that shared purpose and communicate the social contribution when everyone is working individually from home.

It seems clear that there is still an important place for the office. So, how will the impact of covid change our relationship with the physical office?

Businesses will need to start by reassessing what the office space is for. Is it to help foster creativity? To bond the people who keep the business going? To engender a shared brand purpose?

With the answers to this key question, businesses can begin to reimagine what the office may look like in order to better achieve its purpose. If your aim is to foster greater creativity, you will need a space that is inspiring to your employees.

Social interactions need dedicated spaces and shared activities. Brand purpose requires you to demonstrate your commitment to your employees as well as a carefully constructed office space.

As Jonathon Gibson, Director and Head of Sustainability at Avison Young, nicely summarises: “[Covid] will polarise between ultra-efficient low cost and soulless spaces, driven by cost per head, which are there purely as a function for when people absolutely need to meet up.

“Then, on the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the high quality, experiential office, designed to be a space people want to come to and spend time in, that will help attract the best talent. People will be coming to the office for an experience, to have ideas and be creative.

“If you’re operating in the middle ground you’re in danger of being left behind or paying for something that’s never used. So, for this reason, the right companies will make the investment.”

When you consider that 47% of employees work in environments with no natural light while 58% have no natural greenery in their workplace, it’s clear that current workplaces aren’t working for employees. Dark, dingy and artificial spaces do not foster creativity, inspire people, or create a positive feeling towards the business itself.

At Square Mile Farms, we aim to transform workplaces to inspire, engage and positively impact employees’ health and wellbeing through the installation of vertical farms. These lush edible walls create a green environment that triggers biophilia, or “love of life or living systems”, helping to improve wellbeing and productivity.

As well as being a focal point for new employees and clients, vertical farms provide a source of fresh food around which employees can engage and collaborate. In fact, we even run regular employee engagement sessions to ensure that it becomes an intrinsic feature of the workplace.

While it seems inevitable that covid will change the perception of the office environment and demand for square footage may in fact go down, solutions like Square Mile Farms will help to transform office environments over the coming years into far more welcoming spaces.

These reinvigorated workplaces will drive new demand for office space, demonstrating that attractive, inspiring offices can still produce better, more creative work and build stronger brands.