How are offices transforming in the wake of COVID-19?

Nina Hendy



City offices were abandoned during the pandemic last year. And while some have returned to work in their office space, many are wondering what our offices will look like in a world beyond COVID-19, writes Nina Hendy.

Abandoned office buildings in our cities and towns are a sad sight as the pandemic forces a staggered return to the office.

As Australian and New Zealand public health authorities continually battle to contain COVID-19 while allowing life to continue as normally as possible, many businesses have played it safe by allowing staff to continue working from home.

In the past few weeks, the Victorian Government was forced to abandon plans that would allow 75 percent capacity for public and private sectors to return to the office after new COVID-19 cases were detected.

For businesses trying to navigate what the office will look like after the pandemic slows to a halt, it’s a major challenge.

And while there are positive signs that things will return to normal at some point, what the office design will look like in the future is still up for grabs.

Atlassian builds huge office

Australian tech giant Atlassian had committed to a mammoth $1 billion-plus 40-storey office tower project before the pandemic was declared. But once COVID-19 hit, the company told workers that they could work from home forever, where the nearly 5,000 employees largely remain.

Despite this, the company insists that the new office development will forge ahead, with the company adamant it will need to provide office spaces for some employees, while some will work from home.

Atlassian’s co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes says the future is about choice, and flexibility.

“We need to serve both audiences (those working from home and from the office) well, so we are still going to have offices in physical spaces,” he said.

A future of flexibility for the office

It’s not clear how long social distancing measures will remain, which extends to workstations.

Regardless, employees will feel safer knowing that their employer is providing a work area with appropriate social distancing so they can focus on their job, rather than worry about COVID-19.

But the fact is that desks and cubicles could well give way to more flexible meeting spaces in a post-pandemic world.

Simon Pole is the Global Head of Design for business and commercial interior design firm, Unispace.

The global workspace experts work with clients like Deliveroo, ANZ, Bupa and Optus, predicts that 40 per cent workers will continue to work from home three or more days a week after the vaccine has been made available.

The company also predicts that between 10 percent and 30 percent of office space will remain unoccupied, which is in addition to the 40 percent to 50 percent that was already typically unoccupied.

Based in Melbourne, he’s working with a range of clients grappling with office design projects that are cohesive and productive, as well as safe, in the years to come.

“Where we work has expanded over the years, and COVID has accelerated that so that home is now seen as part of the workplace,” he said.

“Not that long ago, line of sight managers and senior management didn’t trust that we were working unless they had a visual on us in the office, but COVID-19 has changed all that.”

Office designs under review

But now, businesses have been contemplating what office design should encompass.

In some cases, his clients are realising that those CBD offices aren’t necessary, and that spaces on the urban fringes can effectively supplement the CBD office space.

“The office space enables collaboration with clients and team meetings, and that is likely to continue, but now that we’ve all had better balance during last year’s lockdowns, perspectives have changed,” said Pole.

“Many employees are questioning if they really need two desks, now that they’ve got a perfectly good desk at home. And businesses are considering how to help their employees to be the most productive and how to design spaces that suit them.”

Some businesses are reconsidering how to utilise co-working spaces as over-flow or flexible space beyond the main office tenancy, perhaps reducing their CBD footprint, Pole has found.

Pole has noticed three distinct ways that clients consider the best way forward in a post-COVID world:

  • Client A – Tends to do nothing and slowly migrate back to the office as authorities allow.
  • Client B – Has adapted a new style of working and realises not everyone will come to the office, which means they’ve managed to save on office space.
  • Client C – Have paused decision-making, and are now using this time to accelerate their ways-of-working redesign.

“Businesses have been left trying to predict what space they actually need, which is very difficult because for the next 12 months we’re going to continue to be in No Man’s Land.

“The key here is around flexibility, and office technology needs to be flexible too.”

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