The way we work: COVID and the future of the corporate headquarters?

That the world’s professional services, financial services and creative industries are being run from bedrooms, kitchens and home offices across the globe is testament to both technological infrastructure and workforce flexibility. A scenario that would have been unthinkable a decade ago has today been accepted as a new norm in the face of a huge global shockwave.

This resilience has, understandably, led to questions over the future role of the workplace with many experts predicting the demise of the traditional office as we know (or, knew) it. In an article in The Guardian this week, Jes Staley, the chief executive of @Barclays said the bank would look at a more de-centralised approach to staff working, including the prospect of local branches becoming satellite offices for more employees. “I think the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past”, he said, before explaining that it was likely that bank branches would be utilised to create an extended office network from which investment bankers, corporate advisors and call centres might work on an ad-hoc basis. He added that “it is absolutely remarkable that Barclays, a bank with £1.4bn on its balance sheet, is functioning with the vast majority of its staff working from home”.

If a vast corporate occupier with 80,000 staff can function for an extended period with a home based workforce, do question marks exist over the need for the traditional flagship head office building? With advisors such as @CushWake and @JLL launching dedicated COVID related corporate real estate services, it would appear that many major occupiers are giving serious consideration to their future approach. Some office market bulls predict that the ongoing need for social distancing could translate into occupiers needing even larger footprints to accommodate their staff, although this would seem to many an overly optimistic outlook in an era that is likely to see businesses rushing to reduce their exposure to real estate costs.

They key to finding the right corporate real estate solution surely comes down to a detailed understanding of the workforce. No business can treat its workers as one homogenous entity and all have differing needs in terms of working environment, commute, social contact and responsibilities outside of work. As @BritishLand boss, Chris Grigg, explains in an article today’s @FT, “There is a danger of groupthink. You have to bear in mind that there are some people struggling to juggle childcare or home schooling with their day job, and more junior colleagues who are sharing flats who think this is nothing short of a nightmare”.

While the enforced global home working experiment may have surprised us all, it is likely that the best future solutions will come from a human perspective rather than a purely bricks and mortar perspective. Taking people into account, it is likely that most organisations will draw similar conclusions: that a central “hub’ for collaboration and brand identity, supported by a range of more flexible solutions – including “satellite” locations and home working options – is likely to offer the best blend of solutions for both staff wellbeing and business continuity.

With renewed confidence in remote working infrastructure and (hopefully) a decline in the presenteeism culture, the best occupiers will adapt their strategies accordingly, while the best landlords will respond with innovative products and solutions that fit the needs of the post-COVID working world. ​

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