The Covid-19 vaccine roll-out has been a huge success. Listening to the news at home, I’m now itching to get back to the office. I want to catch up with my colleagues again and see my clients face to face. I miss the interaction, the collaboration and if I am honest, I miss the commute! That might not last.
I’m confident we’ll get back there soon, although it won’t be the same as it was this time last year. Covid has done many things to the world, mostly bad, but it has given the planet a chance to breathe again, highlighted the extraordinary ingenuity of our scientists and brought some huge changes to the way we work. It’s fair to say those changes were coming anyway but it would have taken many years. Covid has hit the fast forward button. Office life, post-pandemic, is going to be much more flexible. My working week will be divided between time spent at home and in the office, only travelling when I need to collaborate and meet clients. This greater choice has huge benefits for work/life balance for all of us. I might even get a seat on the train.
In the midst of this seismic transformation, one thing has been stubbornly resistant to change. It’s the office fit out. Okay, we design spaces that encourage collaboration more than yesterday’s fixed desking systems ever could. We also provide varieties of space to suit different ways of working. But the core principle remains – fitting out means suspended ceilings, walls, floors and furniture. This hasn’t really changed over the whole of my time in this industry. At least we don’t use mineral fibre, lay-in grid ceilings any longer. (If you don’t know what they were, we left them behind with Betamax and the Sony Walkman). We’re moving away from metal pan ceiling tiles too, towards exposed ceilings or hybrids, although both somehow seem to end up costing the same (or more). But this isn’t about design, it’s about cost and waste. A Cat B office fit out can swallow a huge capital sum, which then has to be written off over its service life. The amount we spend on fit out and its sense of permanence makes us much less likely to change it, even when it no longer works for us and starts to be a constraint. Whilst I can see the whole world innovating around me, reacting to the global pandemic, our industry isn’t. Something needs to change. So where is the innovation?
Why can’t we create an office version of the retail pop up, but on a larger scale? I am not talking Containerville, Shoreditch, or the kind of pop up offices in hotels, airports or shopping centres, but lower cost, flexible, sustainable “pop up” fitting out in existing offices. Many suitable furniture solutions are already available, meeting pods, for example. But they rely on existing fitted out spaces for infrastructure connections. My question is broader - what can we do to reduce the fit out, reduce costs, be more sustainable and avoid the need to throw it all away at the end of the lease?
Technology already allows us to be more flexible – mobile broadband and Wi-Fi means we don’t need fixed data cables to each desk although we still need power. Not just for my laptop, but my phone, iPad and earbuds. But that doesn’t mean buildings need an extensive power infrastructure. Workplace technology and analytics allows us to turn on parts of the building as we need them. Air quality monitoring allows us to adjust fresh air flow locally, right down to the space occupied by a handful of desks. We can be really lean and deliver only what’s needed where it’s needed.
But to me, solving the fit out challenge will take more than technology alone. There needs to be a fundamental redefinition of the distinctions between the base building, the Cat A and the Cat B, to squeeze the amount of work that needs to be done to create effective work settings to a minimum. The base building needs to be designed to require minimum intervention, for example, in a form that doesn’t need a ceiling installed. Designed so the tenant can “plug and play” without the need for a substantial fit out. You can also argue that this is no different to a developer-led, turnkey solution for the tenant and a shift of capex cost, but the true value is a reduction of costs for every tenant, not just the first one, shorter gaps between tenancies, reduced waste and more flexibility. Combined, this means a better and more sustainable building – surely a win-win situation. If this means we need to look again at how we handle dilapidations and reinstatement in leases, they too could be re-engineered into measures that actively discourage waste and promote re-use.
Let’s agree not to forget what Covid has shown us. A flexible work life needs a flexible office. Given the scale of the challenges we face, we can’t simply revert to the old ways, so let’s drive the change and innovation the industry needs. How we use offices has changed forever, now’s the time to change how we deliver them.