The future of the office in Belgium
Towards a new paradigm for the office and workspace?
- Key Highlights
- In terms of territory, occupants may review their location strategy
- In terms of buildings, the criteria of sustainability, connectivity and flexibility are already essential
- The workspace will be completely redesigned to meet the needs of the occupants and to accommodate and retain talent
For the past few years now, employees and their wellbeing have been front and centre of concerns with regard to the way workspace is designed and fitted out. The COVID-19 pandemic and its successive lockdowns, as well as the various Government measures implemented, have turned the old ways of working entirely on their head, forcing employers and employees alike to dramatically increase their use of teleworking and working from home. In fact, many companies have had to reinvent themselves and totally rethink the way they operate.
Of course, every sector of business has its own specific features and challenges. But, despite that, we are now able to discern a number of guidelines for the tertiary real estate landscape in Belgium, looking into the future. This is true in particular regarding the way territory is organised and for the location of administrative zones, as well as for the design and construction of buildings and workspaces, especially where flexibility, adaptability and wellbeing are concerned.
Cushman & Wakefield Design + Build has decided to highlight these various elements and identify trends for the future of the office in Belgium and Brussels.
1. Key Highlights
According to the “Experience per Square FootTM @home” study conducted by Cushman & Wakefield, which saw interviews carried out with 125,000 workers in 99 countries, the evidence shows that the collective and mandatory use of homeworking did not resulted in a loss of productivity for companies. The majority (90%) of the individuals surveyed felt that their employer trusted them in terms of the work to be done. 75% of them even believed that their concentration was not impacted by teleworking. One fairly clear conclusion that emerged from the study was that nearly 80% of respondents thought that homeworking policies should be expanded. Pushed to the extreme, this mindset and wish on the part of workers could argue for a massive reduction in office space. Some even predicted a reduction in the stock and occupancy of offices in excess of 50% in the years ahead.
Yet there are a number of factors that argue for a significant return to the office: interaction between colleagues, a loss of identity and less attachment to the company’s culture, a lack of innovation and a lack of learning are all elements that will define or redefine the workspace of tomorrow.
The various studies conducted by Cushman & Wakefield tend to show that a new working balance is emerging, a new ecosystem in which people will be able to work from home, in the office and at a series of other locations (event spaces, cafés, coworking centres, etc.). Having a sound understanding of these expectations and needs is becoming an increasingly determining factor for attracting talented staff – and especially for retaining them.
2. In terms of territory, occupants may review their location strategy
3. In terms of buildings, the criteria of sustainability, connectivity and flexibility are already essential
When it comes to buildings, it has become clear that the criteria of sustainability and environmental excellence, as well as flexibility and adjustment to time and usage, are major elements for meeting the challenges posed by the climate.
Because buildings have a significant impact on global carbon emissions, as well as on water and other energy costs, more environmentally friendly construction methods and usage should help the carbon neutrality targets set by the European Union to be met by 2050. There are already numerous standards in place that are designed to achieve these various targets (LEED, BREEAM, CO2 Neutral, etc.) – and there are as many promises in the pipeline for more sustainable building practices. It also appears that adopting a policy of gaining certification has a positive effect for both owners and investors, given that certified buildings achieve higher levels of rent, have lower vacancy levels, can be marketed more quickly and enjoy higher resale prices than buildings that don’t.
However, even the best levels of performance will only be a minimum if the targets set by the authorities are to be achieved. And beyond that, the use of circularity and urban mining* during construction now appear to be determining factors for the future success of a building.
Alongside these environmental criteria, other and varied forms of certification are also seeing the light of day, aimed at the wellbeing of occupants (WELL certification, Air Score), the connectivity of the buildings themselves (Wiredscore, Access+i) and compliance with urban biodiversity (Biodivercity), etc. These different types of certification are all good sales arguments, both for future owners and for future occupants.
The versatility and ability of buildings to adapt to weather conditions and general usage are also becoming a central element for their design and are two factors that enable their lifecycle to be extended to the maximum while also limiting their environmental impact (we know that 75% of a build’s carbon emissions occur at the time of its construction and when it is demolished). As a result, designs that allow for a change of use (for example from office to residential or hotel use) would be encouraged or even made mandatory at the time planning consent is issued. To meet this growing need for flexibility, new administrative procedures, such as issuing non-specific planning consents, make good sense and deserve to be examined in depth by the relevant authorities.
But beyond the external and structural envelope of the building, given that workplace requirements are going to change dramatically, internal spaces also need to set an example in terms of their adaptability and modularity – i.e. they need to be capable of adjusting to the creation of collaboration zones, conference rooms, amphitheatres, formal and informal meeting places and spaces for leisure and training, as well as conventional workspaces.
But more uniquely, the buildings of the future will need to have access to green outside spaces. They will need to provide a maximum of natural light, good ventilation and the ability to control the ambient temperature inside the building, etc. And new technologies are a determining factor for controlling most of these different aspects.
*Urban mining is the process of recovering and reusing a city’s materials. These materials may come from buildings, infrastructure, or products that have become obsolete.
4. The workspace will be completely redesigned to meet the needs of the occupants and to accommodate and retain talent
It is clear that the workspace of the future needs to be radically different. Sustainability will also be essential in terms of its design and fit-out. We will need to make a point of promoting the circular economy and using materials designed to be more responsible and of better quality. And we mustn’t forget to incorporate plants and other natural elements into the workspace. Preference should be given to flexible offices, with generous ceiling heights and spacious rooms – and we must also think carefully about the way employees are guided through these spaces.
It is no longer a question today of thinking in the short term. We need to design offices that are agile and that are easy to design and fit out to meet the future needs of their occupants – as well as the way the company develops.
Today, there is no longer a clear distinction between work and home. This means that the office space needs to be seen as part of an ecosystem, requiring a holistic approach. This will add complexity to the creation of workspaces and the social interactions that take place inside them. There will be questions of engineering, traffic and aesthetics – all of which must empower the occupants, their productivity and their wellbeing.
Finally, it also appears obvious that the relationship between the building envelope (the office and the workspace) and the way it is used will go in a new direction. It is already difficult to design a space successfully without the contribution of the people responsible for managing the experience of what happens inside that space. The way employees experience the space and their understanding are essential elements of the office space of tomorrow. As is the creation of new positions within companies, such as the “Happiness Managers”, whose job it is to ensure the wellbeing and social life of all workers.
To conclude, it is clear that the office will remain a major part of the urban landscape of the future. But it will be different: multi-purpose, flexible, adaptable, focused on the occupant. It will need to provide a series of additional services that will enable it to make a difference – and in doing so, to enjoy success.
Cushman & Wakefield have partnered with senior researchers at George Washington University (GWU), to release different reports examining the history and future of the office. These were compiled in response to the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the office space market.
The first report “Purpose of Place: History and Future of the Office” reviewed existing academic literature to explore the benefits of working from the office and home. The key areas examined were the impact of:
2. Creativity and Innovation
3. Corporate Culture and Branding
4. Employee Engagement and Satisfaction
5. Walkable Spaces
The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the operations of organisations around the world, forcing many to adapt their homes into offices. Through flexibility and creativity, employers and employees across the board came up with resourceful ways to manage this paradigm shift, allowing, in some sectors, businesses to run as usual.
This was more straightforward in countries that had a pre-established culture of working remotely as well as the necessary supporting technological infrastructure. Belgium, for example, pre-covid placed 4th in both the EMEA and Europe overall, for the number of occupations able to work remotely. According to a 2019 survey on working from home across Europe, 24.6% of Belgians responded that they sometimes WFH, placing Belgium 9th out of 35 countries. This percentage was only at 19% in 2010. Furthermore, more than 55% of Belgians interviewed expect to increase significantly their remote work as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Regardless, even in those countries less suited to the transformations posed by the pandemic, it was made clear that with communications technologies productivity could be achieved anywhere. While drastic lifestyle changes and economic uncertainty were brought on by the pandemic, people also experienced benefits in their new WFH arrangements.
Employees, for example, no longer needed to dread long commuting hours. They experienced a greater sense of autonomy and flexibility over how, when, and where they would work. And they enjoyed more time and proximity to their home life. The communications infrastructure accelerated a ‘new normal’, which presented employees with new choices. They also raised questions about the old ways of doing things, including the fundamental purpose of office space itself. Employers saw the opportunity to reduce overheads by downsizing on unnecessary and expensive office space, often located in high value central urban areas. The Covid-19 has put some (re-)location decisions on hold across Europe and in Brussels where the take-up was 50% lower in 2020 than in 2019.
Nevertheless, the findings from our report suggest that it is unlikely the Covid-19 induced remote work experiment will continue unchanged in a post-covid world. The evidence regarding the impact of long-term remote working on productivity is mixed, as many report negative experiences regarding creativity and innovation. A key asset of creative and knowledge-based industries is often facilitated by spontaneous conversations and impromptu meetings between co-workers, not easily replicated when WFH. An office set-up with a ‘walkable space’ offers the opportunity for these chance encounters with colleagues in an environment where knowledge and ideas circulate freely.
The duration of WFH can also have a negative impact on the wellbeing of employees, compounding the feelings of social isolation brought on by covid-19 restrictions. Participants in our focus group spoke of an eagerness to return to the office to connect and collaborate = something they felt was lacking from the WFH arrangement. They spoke of WFH fatigue, especially when it came to endless video meetings. They also mentioned the damage done to company culture through digital working half of the respondents to our survey mentioned they struggled to identify with it.
The Covid-19 induced work arrangements will continue to change as we enter a post-covid world. However, there will be a significant shift in the purpose of the office going forward.
Workplace Ecosystems of the Future
Sara Staels, Head of Workplace Strategy, adds: “Human connection and social bonding are suffering, impacting the connection to corporate culture and learning.”
Going forward, the offices of tomorrow will need to embrace these findings:
- A mix of in-office and remote work options optimises productivity
- Employees want choice and freedom, but few want to work entirely from home
- Being forced to stay home disproportionately impacts young and new staff, who lack opportunities for mentorship and growth
- A range of shared spaces facilitates opportunities for innovation and creativity
- Employee wellbeing must be prioritised at all stages
- Having a location in a ‘walkable place’ can attract talent and exposes the company to (a) wider circulations of ideas and knowledge.
Sara Staels, Head of Workplace Strategy, comments on the workplace of the future:
“The workplace will no longer be a single location but a whole ecosystem. It will comprise of WFH options, an HQ office with a range of different size meeting rooms and shared facilities, local hubs, coffee shops, and co-working spaces. People will work how and where they want, depending on their tasks, mood, and activities. More than ever, technology will be the backbone of the office, connecting the ecosystem together. When (re)organizing their future offices, companies will have to take this into account.”
Workplace and Employee Wellbeing
We believe too much of the rhetoric surrounding ‘new ways of working’ has focused on productivity at the expense of a human-centered design approach. In today’s tertiary economy, which encompasses all creative, tech, and knowledge-based industries, employees increasingly identify with their work. They find meaning through this identity and its association with the organisation for which they work. Consequently, it has become of increasing importance for employees to feel a connection to their workplaces. They want the workplace to reflect their values and fulfill their need to belong. This became especially important with the effects of social isolation during the pandemic.
While the job itself and the company’s organisational structure can contribute to this, companies must also keep in mind the impact of the physical environment where their staff work. And the effect it has on employee wellbeing and productivity - the link between the two is well-documented by science. On top of this, recent graduates will choose their place of work based on where they believe their needs can be met. So, to attract and retain talent, any well-designed workplace strategy must take employee wellbeing seriously.
Sara Staels, Head of Workplace Strategy, comments on the importance of workplace wellbeing: “Wellbeing at the workplace has never been so important. The office needs to meet employees’ expectations to attract them into the office.”
“The office of tomorrow must provide the new generation with the possibility of personal growth as well as opportunities for social community. Especially in light of the negative ongoing effects of social distancing restrictions. It must therefore create a feeling of belonging, uniting stakeholders and encouraging their participation in the creation of a community. It must be dynamic, flexible, agile, and connected. Today, the new generation expects their work environment to be a quality space they can take pride in - the center of their social life, aesthetically pleasing, cultured, enabling meaningful exchanges, and providing fulfillment.”