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Office space and remote working in the age of COVID-19

By Sam Azasu and Dr. Yomi Babatunde

With the worldwide spread of COVID-19, the property management industry has been thrust into the conversation about office layout best practices. This is a perfect opportunity to review how property owners and managers can use space planning to help tenants achieve their work goals and keep workers safe, and how changes in remote work policies can be best incorporated moving forward.

BOOKMARK the IREM COVID-19 resource page for tools and information to support property managers as they navigate the ever-evolving coronavirus landscape.
Workplaces around the world have been moving away from traditional cubicle design toward open plans and co-working-inspired designs. Among the reasons for this shift are technical progress and a growing need for more collaborative working environments. Another key driver appears to be the reduced cost of space per worker in open and co-working spaces. International studies have shown that direct real estate costs are second only to salaries and wages in the corporate operating budget, making office use an expensive undertaking.

Opponents of conventional office designs argue that these workspaces restrict users’ creativity due to limited opportunities for interaction, while supporters of flexible and open office designs argue that they boost creativity. Still, over thirty years of research has documented the negative impacts of open office layouts on users’ experience of their office space.

What the research says

Longitudinal studies have shown significant deterioration in workspace satisfaction with the rise of open offices. The studies find that open-plan layouts increase distraction and eliminate privacy.

In a 2018 report titled “The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration,” Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban investigate the pattern of human interaction when workers transition to open-plan spaces. This is what they report:

“Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction [in open office spaces] decreased significantly (approx. 70%) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction. In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.”

Remote working can lead to weakening connective capital. This concept, developed by Casey Ichniowski and Kathryn Shaw of Columbia and Stanford Universities, respectively, refers to the phenomenon by which a worker’s ability to solve a problem depends not only on their own skills but also on the skills and competencies of the team to which they belong. This is because “spillovers of knowledge among co-workers serve as a way to multiply the expertise of skilled workers.”

The rise of remote working

Remote working had been on the rise thanks to developments in mobile computing. This was before the coronavirus struck, spreading so rapidly that companies shuttered and “social distancing” became a requirement. The sometimes frowned-upon notion of remote working has become normal and accepted.

The conditions for remote work vary based on country. In countries like Sweden, mobile computing is allowed under strict conditions—the employer is required to ensure the employee’s home workspace passes health and safety checks and the employee has the right equipment to work from home.

Spain tried to buck the trend toward greater remote working when they put in place in May 2019 a requirement for employers to record the length of employees’ working hours. Some employers responded with a “face time” requirement by asking workers to physically check in and out of work using biometric systems. With COVID-19, Spain moved to facilitate remote working.

In places such as South Africa, a move toward increased remote working is likely to be a challenge. In addition to cybersecurity, unstable energy supply remains an ongoing problem. Paternalistic work cultures, like the one that persists in Spain, will also conflict with remote working. In countries around the world, laws will need revision, and management culture will have to undergo drastic change.

Remote working, by its nature, reduces chances for accidental meetings that lead to strong bonds and the discovery of the skills and talents of the people we work with. Dealing with this requires the installation of strong technological infrastructure that facilitates information sharing and remote teamwork. This infrastructure must be highly protected from cyber-intrusion as well. The role of property managers in the maintenance and security of IT installations will only grow as a result.

An unclear future, a certain responsibility

It is unclear where workspaces are going once the pandemic dies down. Will we revert to cubicles or highly-partitioned spaces with greater space per worker because of the health benefits of distancing? Occupant demands may hold the clues. For example, a recent survey conducted by Bospar shows that 52.9% of Americans believe open offices will lead to an increase in coronavirus infections. What other opinions do workers have about their spaces in this new normal?

What is clear is that property managers and their employers must strengthen health and safety protections. Property managers will need to maintain the sanitation stations that were hastily installed at the onset of the pandemic and continue tenant education programs. Flu season immunization programs and other health and wellness efforts will now be a value-add service that property managers can offer in their buildings.

Building systems may also need rethinking. For example, touch-based biometric systems were among the first to be disabled at the University of the Witwatersrand, where we work, to limit the risk of infections while entering the university.

We also need to be mindful that long periods of isolation may have left some psychological damage among our tenants’ employees. Employers must stand ready to provide psychosocial support, and property managers may need to allocate space for that as part of their management service.

These issues are all at the forefront as we reconsider open-plan spaces, co-working arrangements and remote working. The future of the office is happening now, and property managers’ roles are evolving with it. We must watch these developments carefully to provide the best solutions for our tenants.

A young chapter continues to grow
In 2018, IREM established its first chapter on the African continent, the South Africa Gauteng Chapter. In 2020, the chapter grew by another 22 CPM members. The IREM education program in South Africa is offered in partnership with the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The chapter has actively attended the Global Summit and for the past two years was joined by ministers from the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure in Ft. Lauderdale and San Francisco.

Journal of Property Management

Sam Azasu is an associate professor of real estate and an educational developer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. His research, which includes corporate real estate and employee reward management, has been published in Europe and the United States.
Dr. Yomi Babatunde

Dr. Yomi Babatunde lectures on project management at the University of the Witwatersrand. His research interests focus on total quality management (TQM), and he is active in several project management associations throughout the world.

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