Dossier: Rethinking the workplace

Rethinking the workplace

By Steffen Szeidl, Member of the Executive Board, Drees & Sommer SE

The coronavirus crisis has changed the world of work in an instant, emptying offices of life at a stroke. In the meantime, however, those empty offices have gradually started to fill up: only this time with safety measures like barriers, signs marking the way, access rules and partitions. And despite what some people may hope, there may be no going back to the way things were. For example, our office next-door neighbours may stay at home, only available for a chat over video conferencing, because they belong to an at-risk group, need to take care of their children or simply don’t want to commute. Some changes may be here to stay (even in the medium and long term). Behaviour that would have been considered pretty abnormal before the pandemic has now become part of the much-heralded new normal.

From one to multiple work locations

The very idea of the workplace needs to be fundamentally rethought because it won’t just be one workplace in the future. Alongside working from home and going to the office, soon you’ll be able to work from anywhere. And whether that involves working from co-working spaces, cafes or hotels, work can, and will, be done remotely.

For this kind of working model to be successful, the right conditions have to be in place to facilitate co-working. This requires investment, and that in turn requires action from the senior management team. It’s not just a question of installing the necessary technical solutions but of actually trusting employees to exercise their individual responsibility and make the right decisions on behalf of the company.

It’s the job of a company’s leadership team to make decisions that create the best possible future for their company and employees. Health is also a priority here. Even if we do manage to overcome the pandemic in the near – or perhaps not so near – future, people will still be far more health-conscious than they ever were and a healthy workplace environment will rise up the agenda. Partly, this will involve taking a systematic approach to hygiene at work and partly it will mean using healthier materials during building and fitting out. Both factors will be important in future-proofing the office.

The office has to be cooler than working from home

There’s no doubt that the office will continue to exist. But it will go from being a purely work-orientated environment with fixed attendance hours and become a hub for meetings and networking events with customers and clients (where human contact is so important). Its new role requires the office to have a living room-esque ambience that fosters feelings of togetherness, is comfortable and relaxing for long periods and is generally an exciting place to be. It also needs to be equipped with the very best technology for collaboration. Or, if you had to tell the man in the pub: as well as being a hub for meetings, the office of the future needs to attract people and therefore be cooler than working from home.

Different asset classes will begin to overlap

This shift will have a knock-on effect on existing asset classes. The traditional office will become more of a meeting and conference location whilst the residential sector will need to think about the home office – which might include importing certain office features and anticipating future trends. We can already start to see a blurring of the lines between the various classes of asset. There will also be fewer large spaces on the rental market and tenancy contracts will be shorter – both in the short-term and the medium to long-term. There will surely be an initial slowdown depending on where we are in the economic cycle.

New normal. New rules

Legal issues are likely to grow in importance moving forwards. The current crisis has caused some urgent decisions to be made and, for the moment at least, there is likely to be some legal leeway. However, the more that this situation normalizes, the more important it is to start thinking about things from a legal standpoint. If we take working from home, employers have a range of different contractual responsibilities towards their employees which could easily get complicated if they are given wide-ranging freedoms. There are, of course, obvious things like the need for an ergonomic chair or having the necessary hardware and software to be perform one’s work just as effectively from home. However, there’s more to it than that. Employers are also responsible for a whole raft of things like compliance with workplace guidelines, the working time directive, confidentiality and data privacy, insurance issues and workplace safety.

We need to think about the big picture

It’s undeniable that most of our current laws still come from the industrial era. And whilst these regulations may still have some relevance for employees that work in manufacturing, they are completely outdated when it comes to the modern workplace. In fact, several companies had already been pushing for changes before the coronavirus hit. And for the most part these demands were ignored by politicians, although there have been murmurs of amendments such as a “Right to work from home” or calls for the workplace guidelines to be overhauled. But what we really need to do is to rethink the workplace at a fundamental level and come up with a brand new approach. This means that the whole process has to be carefully thought through to reflect the working realities of today and tomorrow rather than making incremental changes and improvements to the status quo. We can only hope that politicians will react with the same speed with which they brought out the coronavirus support package.

Work from Office – Work from Home – Work from Everywhere

Working from home was on its way to becoming a major trend even before the coronavirus broke out – whilst having a single workplace is on the way out. The office may remain as the place where most work is done, but it will be complemented by other workplaces at home, in cafes or at coworking spaces. The boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ will become even more blurred. To use a computer metaphor, the company will become a kind of universally-accessible cloud. Meanwhile, employees will work together whilst remaining independent and distributed. If we stay on top of all the latest developments and take appropriate action, we will discover a better new normal waiting for us on the other side once the dust begins to settle.

Dossier "The Workplace Reloaded"

The corona pandemic has accelerated many developments that would have come to the real estate industry sooner or later anyway - especially with regard to digitalisation and sustainability. One thing is certain: offices will continue to exist, they will have to exist. What distinguishes them, which aspects will be important for the workplace in the future and for everyone connected with it, is the subject of numerous articles and interviews in our dossier "The Workplace Reloaded".



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