Office Property News South Africa

Rethinking the office: Like everything else, it needs to evolve

According to Statistics South Africa, more than 77% of South Africans who were able to work during the lockdown period between April and May this year were working from home. As a result of this ongoing flexibility, trends from the latest FNB Residential Property Barometer indicate a behavioural shift in which people are choosing to invest in new homes.
John Jack, CEO, Galetti Corporate Real Estate
John Jack, CEO, Galetti Corporate Real Estate

This trend can be attributed to both the low interest rate and many reassessing their needs and preferences now that they are no longer tied to a fixed workplace. The FNB report cites anecdotal evidence showing rising demand for bigger properties (mainly freestanding homes), notably in less crowded “second-tier” cities that are not major commercial hubs.

“It’s no surprise that remote working is leading to an increase in residential relocation away from former workspaces,” says Galetti Corporate Real Estate CEO John Jack. “Contrary to popular belief however, this does not mean that office space will become obsolete.”

Jack’s stance is motivated by two primary factors: Working remotely isn’t for everyone, and working remotely doesn’t necessarily mean working from home.

Talk to your employees

“I would caution any business owner who is considering making a long-term decision about reducing their office space requirements to first talk to their employees about where they want to work once it is safe to do so,” Jack explains.

While some employees have access to both a quiet working space and the technical resources required to work from home, it is important to remember that a digital divide still exists in South Africa. This specifically refers to the unequal access to technical equipment and the connectivity needed to get online.

“Many workers do not have access to the same conditions at home as they do at the office, and they are actively struggling to maintain the same level of productivity and performance.”

In addition to the practical challenges of working from home, many are finding themselves longing for the excitement and stimulation that comes from in-person interaction with their colleagues. Research, according to Jack, shows that people working together in the same room tend to solve problems faster than remote collaborators, and that team cohesion suffers in remote work arrangements.

In contrast, he says that various prominent companies have embraced digital innovation and are transitioning with ease and agility. “Dimension Data, for example, has created a smart virtual workplace solution enabling employees to work from home more efficiently.”

Ultimately, the decision of whether to work remotely comes down to personal preference. “We have conducted multiple surveys on our social platforms to gauge employee attitudes towards working from home and found that 83% of respondents indicated that they looked forward to going back to their offices,” explains Jack.

Rethinking ‘the office’

With travel restrictions starting to ease, the future of remote working may not be limited to ‘working from home’, notes Jack.

“Depending on the industry and the type of job, we could see more people relocating to areas outside of the major cities to enjoy a quieter lifestyle whilst still having the luxury of an office base to visit every week or two for collaboration purposes.”

While the office is here to stay, its form and function will need to evolve. Jack provides guidelines for the evolving traditional office space in the ‘new normal’:

  • Look at remote space and office space as two separate functions:
    - Office space should be focused on collaboration.
    - Remote space needs to be set up to optimise individual productivity and output.
  • Reduce office space as needed, but don’t do away with it entirely. This may mean sharing space with other like-minded businesses, i.e. subletting.
  • Consider renting your employees a desk or an office in a co-working space close to their homes. These are often more flexible and affordable than traditional office leases and encourage collaboration.
  • Ensure that you invest significantly in your digital infrastructure.
  • Constantly reassess the performance of your employees to see what is working and what isn’t.
  • Above all, be flexible and understand that these are unprecedented times.

“While this pandemic will certainly prompt all companies to rethink their ways of working, office space is here to stay. It exists with purpose but like everything else, needs to evolve,” Jack concludes.

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