Is Flexibility the Future of Commercial Space?

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On Friday 30th October I featured on the AREA Facebook page an interesting article from the magazine ‘Facility Executive’, titled ‘Is Flexibility the Future of Work’. The article featured quantitative research, across all major international cities, on Real Estate Professionals views on the changing nature of desk work, during the next five years. If you have not read it as yet, I recommend you should. In the article they made an important observation, that the word ‘office’ was probably a word of the past and a better word would be ‘workspace’.  

I was at home at the time, on quarantine, having had a possible exposure. I was mandated to be away from the office for 14 days. Earlier, in July we had taken the decision to downsize our office rental space by 40% to save on rent, in response to slowing business. Now seated at my home makeshift desk I was in deep thought whether I should reduce the existing space by a further 50%. As a small business owner/operator, while this can be seen as a wise financial decision, it also has an emotional impact. I could not help feeling that in some way it was a downsizing of the business. It had taken us 18 years to build to this size, and now we were contracting.

I thought of Mr. Chin and the closure of Movie Towne Chaguanas, and the owner of Trotters expressing regret that they may have to close some or all of their six restaurants, and of the closure of the popular Jaffa restaurant. I thought of the hundreds of small unfeatured businesses that have closed, probably permanently. I thought of a recent visit to the once lively Valpark Shopping Mall, that looked, in places, as a ghost town. Probably the authors of the article and respondents to the questionnaire were correct, we are facing a seismic shift in work with a corresponding impact on the use of commercial space.

In the article they describe the new normal, for work, as flexibility and workspace, replacing semi-permanent office desk. Probably from my examples above it goes further. That commercial space in general will now have to be flexible. With a second surge of the pandemic exceeding the first surge in places like the US, UK, France, Italy and Germany, all leaders in medicine and public health, I could not help thinking that this could be prolonged as in the ‘Black Plague’, which lasted for five years, but on this occasion, not just in Europe but across the globe.

What would flexible commercial space look like. The authors outline a few:

  • Flexible and tailor made leasing models
  • A blending use of space between residential, hospitality and office space
  • The office space to be a place to build company culture through health guaranteed (software and testing) occasional meetings
  • Wider use of co-working facilities
  • Healthy building amenities
  • Common workspace mainly for collaborative work
  • Faster obsolescence of buildings use and quick repurposing
  • A need to consider social/community impact – more local less commute

I would like to add a few:

  • Multiple entities renting the same space and alternating use of the facilities
  • Temporary restaurants that may be open for a week or a particular season and then revert to home delivery
  • Commercial space as temporary showrooms

The authors settled on two words to describe the new normal: ‘flexibility’ and ‘workspace’. I think all of  us who use, rent, purchase, sell, lease or work in Real Estate will have to embrace these words and flesh out what it would mean in local circumstances for the next five years.  

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