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Remote working will not make offices obsolete

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Employers should not reduce space before discussing with employees where they want to work

Many companies are scaling back their office space as the remote working trend grows but this does not mean offices will become obsolete.

Working remotely is not for everyone and this work habit also does not necessarily mean working from home, says John Jack, chief executive of Galetti. He does not believe the remote working movement spells the death of the office.

“I would caution any business owner who is considering making a long-term decision about reducing their office space requirements to first talk to their employees about where they want to work once it is safe to do so.”

While some employees have access to a quiet working space and the technical resources required to work from home, he notes a digital divide still exists in South Africa, specifically the unequal access to technical equipment and the connectivity needed to get online.

“Many workers do not have access to the same conditions at home as they do at the office and struggle to maintain the same level of productivity and performance,” Jack says.

Furthermore, many employees enjoy the excitement and stimulation that comes from in-person interaction with their colleagues. “We have conducted multiple surveys on our social platforms to gauge employee attitudes towards working from home and found that 83% of respondents indicated that they looked forward to going back to their offices.”

Depending on the industry and the type of job, more people are likely to relocate to areas outside the major cities to enjoy a quieter lifestyle while still having the luxury of an office base to visit every week or two for collaboration purposes, he says.

But while the office is here to stay, Jack acknowledges that its form and function will need to evolve. Paul Keursten, co-founder and chief executive of workplace solutions provider Workshop 17, says the future of the office is both physical and virtual and that businesses lucky enough to have survived the ravages of the Covid-19 lockdown have been forced to quickly adapt to new ways of working.

“The future of the office became clearer to us during lockdown. Physical workspaces will always be relevant but the need to keep members connected during lockdown inspired us to re-evaluate our value proposition and shift our focus to provide flexible solutions offering an interchangeable mix of physical and virtual spaces and functionalities.”

By all accounts, he says, remote work is here to stay for a growing number of workers and this has undoubtedly had a major impact on the future of offices. 

Despite the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, he says many companies, big and small, are continuing to allow their employees to work remotely. This shift has had an impact of the traditional idea of the office.

“The corporates that have reached out to us are saying that while employees do not necessarily need to be based at a corporate head office to be productive, the long-term work-from-home arrangements are not a solution for everyone.”

Echoing Jack, he says the reality is that some employees may not necessarily have all the resources they need at home to handle their professional commitments. 

“Some employees may not have adequate workspace, ergonomic furniture, certain office equipment, a stable internet connection and in some cases enough quiet time to work. And that is before the predicted load shedding kicks in. Furthermore, there are some professionals who find it challenging not to have regular in-person interaction and engagement with their colleagues when working from home full time.”

In order to adapt to the new world of work, he says corporates are open to limiting their traditional office space environments, in some cases reducing their premises by more than 50%.

“There is a real appetite for a so-called ‘third space’ – an office concept that is relatively close to employees’ homes to avoid long hours in traffic, is ergonomic and functional, and offers a great atmosphere in which their staff can be creative and effective, as well as interact and be inspired by others,” Keurten adds.

All of this considered, it is clear that the office space is not obsolete. However, the demand for it in the post Covid-19 world will decline or, at best, stagnate, says Norman Raad, chief executive of Broll Auctions and Sales.

Commercial offices face either having to reduce their asking rents, being mothballed or being converted for an alternative use. And it is in this latter area that young, forward-thinking entrepreneurs are seizing opportunities.

“The resurgence for opportunistic buyers is similar to the 2008 and 2009 period, only this time, interest rates are at unprecedented lows and values have decreased drastically as a result of the struggling economy.”

Raad says well-located properties with good tenants and yielding good income will always be in demand, and buyers are spoilt for choice.

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