The COVID-19 pandemic hit the commercial property sector in Australia like a battering ram, and no one yet knows when the reverberations will stop being felt, or where the industry will eventually end up.
But there is one certainty: nothing will ever be quite the same again.
Sue Williams asked industry players and onlookers for their 10 tips of the biggest changes we’ll see.
1. There’ll be a seismic shift in how much space businesses will use
As JobKeeper ends, a number of companies will be letting staff go and downscaling, says Patrick McFarland, managing director of tenant advisory service Meta5 Group Australia and New Zealand.
“For a lot of organisations, it’ll be a golden opportunity to rethink the status quo,” he said. “And once the subsidy stops or dries up, a lot will be thinking about reducing their footprint and letting staff go.
“The biggest thing we’re now seeing people request is flexibility on the amount of space they have, and shorter leases so they can readjust more quickly. Some organisations who have multiple footprints in multiple locations will consolidate under fewer roofs, while others will sub-let their excess space to third parties.”
2. Companies will look to decentralise and diversify
A number are now considering moving away from the CBDs and closer to employees’ homes, says Lloyd Collins, state manager for national developer of commercial real estate Cedar Woods Properties.
“We’re seeing rising demand for suburban offices as businesses look to decentralise and diversify their existing workplace structures,” said Mr Collins, whose company is developing one of the fastest growing commercial precincts in Melbourne’s west, Williams Landing.
“I think we will see more businesses establishing hub or satellite offices in different locations to allow employees to work closer to home, with secure parking and transport links to the CBD for meetings.
“Many businesses have learnt that having a strategically located suburban office holds several advantages. The growth of suburban office hubs like Williams Landing will have a bit of a knock-on effect. As more businesses relocate, more like-minded or partner businesses will also want to be surrounded by their network. I think the emergence of these hubs is a trend that will continue to grow.”
3. More companies will allow pets in the office
To woo workers back from remote working, employers will be making a real effort to help staff feel more comfortable in the office, and bring-your-pet-to-work days will prove extremely popular, says TV vet Katrina Warren.
“In all my career, I’ve never seen such an increase in pet ownership as has happened in the past two months,” she said. “We’ve been really appreciating the value of our pets and their unconditional love and companionship at a time of such uncertainty and stress.
“So I think that businesses will draw up rosters and encourage people to bring in their pets for certain days because many people will find it soothing and they’ll be much more enthusiastic about going back to work. At the moment, many worry about their pets’ separation anxiety too, so we’re hearing a lot of talk about this.”
4. Healthy and smart buildings are going to be in more demand
There’ll be a reset going forward for better offices with sustainable, healthy and smart building design, says Shane Quinn, executive chairman and co-founder of commercial and industrial property company Quintessential Equity.
“Healthy and smart buildings are going to be at the forefront of the post-COVID world,’ said Mr Quinn, whose previous project on Malop Street in Geelong for WorkSafe was the second building in the world to be WELL Core & Shell Platinum-Certified.
“Businesses and workforces will want to feel safe when they return to the office. We’ve been working on this for some time, but people need to know that the air quality and everything about that building is safe from a health perspective. Having smart technology will also improve health outcomes as it will lead to a lot of touchless surfaces being built into buildings as standard.
“We need to pivot as an industry to demonstrate this to tenants and future-proof buildings. I think that the WELL rating system is going to be more and more popular in a commercial context. While workforces are likely going to be more agile than before, there is an opportunity for the office sector to reinvent itself – to create an attraction and draw people in.”
5. Companies will include fitness equipment
Health and wellbeing are the new priorities for everyone, says Office National chief executive Gavin Ward, and well-run businesses will recognise that and cater for it.
“Workplaces will eventually find a new type of normal, but it is important for all employers to do as much as they can to support staff to feel comfortable and happy back at work,” he said.
“Sit-stand desks and spin-cycle desks are not only good for your health, they are easy to use. Spin-cycle desks allow people to sit at a desk and work while cycling away below. Safco Zenergy swivel ball chairs are also ideal. They enhance concentration while supporting posture and balance throughout the day.”
6. Offices will move closer to local shops and shopping centres
Local shops are likely to weather the pandemic more easily than the big CBD shopping centres, and will be popular areas for office workers, says Jenny Folley, founder and managing director of coworking and private office provider @WORKSPACES.
“Local shopping centres generally offer better parking and most of the time it is free,” she said. “So if you are running a business you are able to offer your customers and clients easy access to nearby parking. In addition, being located near to local shops and takeaways means people can pick up groceries during the day and even takeaway for dinner.
“Locating your business or office in a local suburban centre means you are not going to pay city rents and getting there is easier; you don’t have to fight with all the traffic going into the city.”
7. Greenery will spring up in offices again
Just as the GFC led to a resurgence in the popularity of gardening and kitchen gardens, the COVID-19 pandemic looks as if it’ll do the same with plantings in offices, says Matt Cantwell, managing director of Secret Gardens.
“Whenever people are under stress or there’s uncertainty, they tend to look for things that make them feel more grounded and physically and mentally better,” he said.
“We all know about the air-cleaning quality of forests and trees and, while greenery in the office probably won’t make a huge difference, it does make us feel healthier.
“I have a little aloe vera plant on my desk which I water three times a year and, while it doesn’t look much, it always makes me feel good.”
8. There’ll be more emphasis on spaces for collaboration
Businesses have found they’ve worked well with staff at home by using technology but the one thing that’s been missing is good collaboration, says Meta5’s Patrick McFarland.
“We’ve seen, during COVID, a lot of Zoom parties with silly hats on Fridays, and fun attempts for people to keep their connection with each other,” he said.
“A lot of people have liked working remotely, but the biggest driver to get people back into the workspace is the need for collaboration on work and projects. So people will go back with a greater emphasis on spaces for interaction with their colleagues, and for working together.
“Working together virtually can never be a substitute for that.”
9. Large coworking spaces will be in less demand
Post-pandemic, people are much more aware of the importance of personal space and are less keen to share desks, says Jim Groves, co-founder and chief executive of coworking platform Rubberdesk.
“Demand for personal and secure private offices is up,” he said. “Demand for coworking desks in open-plan office space mixed with other businesses is falling.
“People are now more interested in having a degree of separation, and private turnkey offices will give them that.”
10. More functions will be held to mark the new normal
There’ll be a fresh air of celebration in workspaces going forward, says Office National’s Gavin Ward.
“People will be in more of the mood to celebrate milestones across the office,” he said. “That could be your first week or month back at the office. We’re recommending finding out people’s birthdays, keeping a tab on world days, and finding lots of things to celebrate.
“For that, companies can hand out party hats and blow up a few balloons, distribute packets of biscuits and lollipops. Individually-wrapped treats and biscuits are ideal as they can be handed out to people and don’t require sharing. And buy everyone new stationery. Everyone loves good stationery.”
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