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Enough with collaborative work spaces; employees need privacy too

Collaborative office spaces may be the big trend, but employers need to consider private space too. Picture: Cadeau Maestro/Pexels

Collaborative office spaces may be the big trend, but employers need to consider private space too. Picture: Cadeau Maestro/Pexels

Published Aug 1, 2022


If office property landlords and tenants want to lure people back to the office, they need to design office buildings that compete with the attractions of home – and give employees some privacy.

While some new-age office designs are all about collaborative workspaces, John Loos, property sector strategist at FNB Commercial Property Finance, believes that office buildings are “sorely lacking” private space.

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Over the years, the move away from the old-fashioned closed offices to open-plan offices saved space and allowed employers to “greatly increase” the density of employee workspace. However, Loos feels that cost saving was probably more of a consideration in the move to open-plan than employee productivity.

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“In addition, technological advances in information and communication greatly reduced the amount of space required for document storage, and also increased the mobility of employees. This led to a rise in the portion of the office workforce that could work remotely, either full time or some of the time.

“Old habits and ‘comfort zones’ were arguably the only things preventing far more people from fully embracing the technologies available for remote work and communication.”

Yet, daily productivity could have been improved by cutting out wasteful commuting time and financial costs, Loos says.

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“The lockdowns forced the late adopters to give remote work a try, and many found out just how much virtual business interactions could improve productivity by eliminating wasteful commuting – not only the daily commute to and from the office, but, equally importantly, those frequent time-consuming trips for many of us to meetings somewhere across the city.

“In addition, for those of us who had wanted to use greater remote interaction long before Covid-19, the lockdown period made it an acceptable practice in many companies.”

While he believed that many employees would resume the commute to the office following the easing, and then the end of, lockdown, he did not expect the same numbers that were working in an office pre-Covid-19.

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“And I’m guessing that current office attendance levels are more or less where commuting levels will settle – the ‘new normal’.”

One of the changes, therefore, is the design of office buildings as landlords and tenants compete with the attractions of working from home.

“The market has to compete with the home in the case of those jobs that can be done from either place. One key ‘selling point’ to employees regarding the benefits of the office, is ‘collaboration’. Employees need to see each other ‘in person’ at least a portion of the time, so the story goes, and collaboration at least some of the time is important in many jobs.

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“Collaboration has thus become a buzz word, and with it the term ‘collaborative space’,” Loos says, adding, however, that a neglected part of the whole equation is the work part.

“Collaboration and employee interaction is necessary some of the time, but much of the time, for many employees, is about focusing on their work individually, preferably with no distraction.”

While acknowledging that distraction and disruption can be an issue for some employees working from home, he says noise and disruption can also emanate from open-plan offices.

“For many years, collaborative space has been in abundance in many office buildings, be it meeting rooms, coffee shops, or ‘pause areas’. The design may need improving, but I have rarely seen a shortage of collaborative space.

“What I have seen a shortage of is ‘private space’ – space where people can work without distraction, a necessity in many jobs. There was a reason for old office buildings many years ago having offices that employees could go into and close the door.”

Loos says the necessity for private space has suddenly sky-rocketed due to the “zoomification” of many employees’ daily business interactions. Even for those back in their offices daily, many will interact with others remotely in order to save on wasteful travelling time and money.

“Open-plan offices where colleagues in close proximity were talking on phones or to each other were disruptive enough for those nearby. Now the often confidential video conferences get added to the mix.”

This has now given rise to the “telephone booth” office – the small soundproof cubicle for quiet work.

“The few that exist in the open-plan office buildings appear very popular, and it would seem that far more of them are needed now. So perhaps if there is one trend change coming out of all of this, it could be a partial shift back away from the open-plan office, towards one with a significant increase in private space.

He adds that another key issue for the office sector is what to do with far longer “off-peak” attendance periods.

“There has been a visible change towards a far shorter weekly peak office attendance period. In days gone by, the peak attendance period was five weekdays. Now it is arguably three days – Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday – at best. Even Thursdays can be quieter. Four out of seven days at least have very low attendance rates in many office buildings.”

Loos, therefore, expects to see “far more creative ways” of utilising that downtime for other commercial activities, possibly by a different tenant altogether.

“Because right now it would appear a rather costly exercise by many corporates to hold office space that is unused for the bigger part of the week.”