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Office life unlikely to get back to normal anytime soon

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As the pandemic appears to be winding down, many workers are electing to remain remote at least some of the time.

A hybrid approach to workspace appears to be the trend of the future as employees split their working hours between home and the office. Co-working and flexible spaces will also play a bigger role in the office property market in the new normal.

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Either way, international signs are that a return to some sense of normality presents great hope for the local commercial real estate sector, says John Jack, chief executive of Galetti Corporate Real Estate.

“As we move past the initial trauma of the pandemic, we look to the next and most important phase in this journey – getting businesses and the economy pumping again.”

The future of working

Flexible lease terms, flexible workspace, subletting, co-working spaces and attractive long-term lease contracts are trending and this is set to continue for the rest of the year, he believes.

However, lower lockdown levels and the vaccine roll-out have caused some companies to ask their staff to return to the office. “Remember, some of these companies are also tied into long-term leases of 10-years plus.”

For those who aren’t ready to return to the office, Jack says South Africa will continue to follow the international trend around remote work flexibility. “In the US, flexible office schedules have been introduced to ease staff back into their former work environment.

“South Africa is on the same wavelength, as it stands.”

Design changes

Many offices are being redesigned to accommodate co-working and flexible workspaces, a trend that was growing before Covid but is now starting to boom.

This means there is probably no looming “death of the office” on the horizon but rather a re-purposing of the workplace into a space that British holding company IWG says will enable workers to interact, engage and collaborate face to face.

Already many companies are adopting or planning to adopt, a hybrid approach – working remotely some days and in the office others. The hybrid model is delivering “spectacular benefits” for employees and employers alike, says Joanne Bushell, IWG managing director, South Africa. The barriers to flexible workplace policies have been broken down, says Paul Stevens, chief executive of Just Property.

“The future of office work is likely to be a hybrid mix of some work from home and some in-office days.” Zeenat Ghoor, founder and chief executive of Aspire Consulting, says the closing down and downscaling of many businesses has seen a rise in the gig economy and micro enterprises and co-working spaces are “ideal for this purpose”.

“The uptake of this, due to the circumstances has been good in popular areas like Rosebank and Sandton, Melrose and Rivonia. Offices are being converted to other attractive solutions, such as co-working spaces.”

Physical challenges

International trends, however, show that companies are laying down new rules and setting expectations for hybrid work as some workers come back in and others remain out of the office.

A recent Wall Street Journal article states that, at JPMorgan Chase & Co, employees on some teams can schedule work-from-home days but not on Mondays or Fridays. “At Salesforce.com offices that have reopened, Thursdays are proving to be the most popular in-office day, creating a high demand for meeting rooms and collaboration spaces, and prompting the company to rethink its office design.”

Employee and staff concern

The article says executives at PricewaterhouseCoopers are concerned that workers who stay remote could wind up as second-class corporate citizens, falling behind in promotions and pay. For this reason, the company plans to track rates of advancement for office-based and remote staff in an effort to make sure nobody lags behind.

But Covid-19 isn’t the only factor weighing on workplaces, it says. “Many managers now worry about a brain drain from their ranks. Some companies that are hiring say they can’t find knowledge workers willing to come into an office five days a week, according to chief executives, human-resource chiefs and recruiters.

“OnSolve, a US software company, is hiring for about 90 new positions this year. Chief executive Mark Herrington says he is eager for office life to return to normal but a number of applicants, particularly in technical and engineering roles, have insisted on having the option to work from home at least some of the time.

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