Workplace change: the shift in the purpose and role of the office

27 Oct 2021

By Kirstin Cooper

While New Zealand is currently back in lockdown due to Covid-19’s Delta variant making its way to our shores, for much of the last 12-18 months we’ve been in an enviable position of starting to explore what the future of work looks like. Unlike other countries who are just starting to emerge from longer lockdowns and periods away from the office, we’ve had the opportunity to return to our workplaces and to begin reimagining how they might look in the future.

CBRE Asia Pacific’s latest report on the Future of Work focuses on the office occupier sentiment on the future of their office portfolio and workplace across the region.

In this piece we focus on the theme of workplace change, a culmination of the other three themes, business sentiment and growth, adoption of hybrid working and portfolio strategies, highlighted in our Future of Work report. We paired this with real life views from interviews conducted in the first half of 2021 where large corporate occupiers shared their view of lessons learned from Covid-19 over the last 18 months and the future impact this will have on their workplace and future strategy.

The culmination into workplace change

One of the most notable changes in the last 18 months is the shift in the purpose and role of the office. There is now a strong trend towards workspaces that provide opportunities for people to come together for high-value face-to-face activities. Future workplaces will need to be designed with people at the centre and provide great spaces for people to connect and socialise, collaborate and knowledge-share, and generally “hang out”. There will need to be a variety of spaces and settings that support both quiet and focused individual work, as well as a range of collaborative and social activities.

There is now also much greater emphasis on organisations providing a workplace that is highly attractive to employees. The future office will compete with the convenience of working from home, so it must provide a productive and inviting environment as well as opportunities for social interactions. Many organisations are utilising smart technology to allow teams the ability to plan their day and ensure a more collaborative and transparent approach to working with the people they need to interact with on that specific day. The office is now a “destination” and will play a key role in the attraction and retention of talent.

Prior to Covid-19 many organisations had already embraced agile and activity-based working, and desk-sharing was a key component of this. As hybrid working becomes more widely adopted, and occupiers look to maximise the use of office space, single-use desk space will become less and less. Though there may be some roles that require assigned seating, these will be the exception, and desk-sharing ratios are likely to increase.

The ratio of staff-to-desk is the most obvious consequence of everything up to this point. With a change to a more hybrid way of working, but with positive economic and business growth means that portfolio size may not change because occupiers are increasing their staff to desk ratio, some as “lean” as 10 desks for 15+ team members.

What is your target staff-to-desk sharing ratio now and in two years?
Source: CBRE
This ratio shows a strong desire by organisations to be more flexible and actually make use of the various alternative seating and standing arrangements that have been implemented in workplaces over the past decade. This includes a distinction between ergonomic workpoints, being a traditional desk which a person may sit at for a full day, and partly-ergonomic workpoints which are alternative settings within the office such as collaborative space, library areas, quiet and focus rooms which can be utilised for a few hours.

This is perhaps the most straightforward change in the way occupiers use office space. When a significant proportion of people only come to the office on selected days and potentially for very different reasons than before, these changes make sense.

It seems to have been much easier for occupiers to go from the office to home or into a hybrid situation rather than going back into the office full-time. Though the pendulum may be swinging back slowly, occupiers will continue to try and figure out the best way going forward that suits their organisation, team and clients the best.

As New Zealand moves toward a higher vaccination rate and reduced restrictions, there may still be additional Covid-19 variants and further lockdowns that cause disruption in the workplace. What is being worked out now about the future workplace will set the scene for what comes next, not just here but across the globe. As one large corporate occupier shared: “There's a lot we are learning that can help with their pathway.”

The final part in our Future of Work series looks at the impact of the pandemic on the future of work and how has it affected business sentiment and growth.