NI: Gareth Planck: The future of the office – the same old routine or the beginning of innovation?

Gareth Planck, partner at Eversheds Sutherland, looks at how lockdown has changed offices and working routines.

The global pandemic has reshaped how we go about much of our lives. It has of course, also reshaped how many of us work on a day-to-day basis. Kitchen tables and spare bedrooms have become make-shift offices where endless meetings are conducted over Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Despite the challenges, the adoption of technology to meet business needs, has been seamless.

For some, the concept of remote working is attractive, but it does not work for everyone. Despite this, questions are increasingly being asked about the future of the workplace and the possible death of the traditional office.

The relationship with offices will be different right across Northern Ireland, however, the idea that offices, which have endured the test of time will all of a sudden ‘die out’ seems wide off the mark. In fact, over the past number month, we have closed on two significant Belfast City Centre office deals which gives good reason to be optimistic about the market.

Rather it seems, the birth of blended offices which combines the virtual and physical workplaces into a single network made up of a fluid mix of people, working between the two may be the direction of travel. Indeed, recent surveys have shown a demand for a new hybrid way of working.

For younger professionals especially, the return of the social benefits associated with office life which are hampered by remote working will be welcome. From our own business perspective, we have recently acquired our own new space in the heart of Belfast City Centre and genuinely believe that the modern office is central to team spirit and ultimately the success of our business. I suspect that this will be a view that is shared by many others.

There are other benefits too. The reality is that office life allows us to work collaboratively and creatively together to get things done efficiently, brainstorm ideas around a table, and most importantly learn from colleagues around us. A well designed and modern office space will remain an efficient machine for getting things done. This would explain why deals in Northern Ireland are still progressing despite lockdown.

That being said, the pandemic has shone a bright spotlight on the possible and the endless opportunities that technology offers. The relative success of remote working over the past number of months can be capitalised on in a way that works for both employers and employees. The associated benefits of potentially higher productivity rates, less time spent commuting to and from work, and of course, a reduced financial spend on office overheads makes a shift to the blended method, very attractive.

The serviced office sector has an important role to play here. Astute landlords will change their products to meet the evolving demand and we are certainly seeing that in Northern Ireland. Scottish Provident Building is a wonderful example of creative innovation in this sector where a tenant can secure a “global deal” on space, rent and services with the flexibility to change in line with changes to a tenant’s business. The provision of flexible, good quality serviced office space has an obvious place in a more cost-aware, blended, and dispersed office world.

However, a shift in this direction will be by evolution and not revolution. Currently, the focus for most businesses is simply on survival and the future of day-to-day working will be low on the agenda. That being said, the building blocks are now in place and the potential for a reimagined working environment is certainly possible, if not expected.

In the coming years, it be interesting to observe the growth in the blended office model across the various sectors.

What started out as the normal working environment may soon become a distant memory for many.

NI: Gareth Planck: The future of the office – the same old routine or the beginning of innovation?

  • Gareth Planck is a partner in the real estate team at Eversheds Sutherland in Belfast.
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