Despite visions of everyone working from home (or the beach) in the 21st Century, and the technology now being available to achieve this vision, it’s swiftly becoming apparent that the corporate office is still very much in demand. Companies and employees value the physical space, both as a representation of brand and somewhere that encourages collaboration and a sense of community.
The office has no doubt evolved in terms of design: few and far between is the office where rows and rows of desks are now dominant; instead break-out areas, kitchens and social spaces are now almost the baseline minimum. But while design has changed, one thing remains the same: more often than not an office will lie empty for more than half the day, costing the occupier money and playing no role in the surrounding community.
So what can be done to extend the utility of an office? Firstly, there is the option to integrate retail and leisure uses. Many large offices already contain cafes for business-related meetings. Is there the option to extend their working life and make these accessible to the public outside standard working hours? The restaurant industry has already looked at their quiet times of the day and some operators are exploring how space could be used to accommodate mobile workers. The same could also apply to office gyms, boardrooms, or lecture theatres: can these be adapted for evening or weekend events?
There will undoubtedly be licensing, change of use and management issues to overcome, which technology can help mitigate, but if surmounted extending these spaces’ uses could offer extra revenue, creating an opportunity to engage with current/prospective clients. In South Korea, for example, AmorePacific, the country’s biggest beauty brand, is already showcasing this in its new David Chipperfield-designed HQ: alongside a reception area, the ground floor includes an art museum and tea room open to staff and the public alike.
But what of the actual office space? It’s relatively easy to envisage the general public accessing self-contained areas within a building, but much harder to think of an appropriate use for vacant desks, before you even contemplate the security concerns (flexible work space can be relegated relatively quickly here – I can’t imagine many entrepreneurs who would sign-up to taking a desk overnight). Is there any way to sweat this space more, or is it destined to remain empty once workers head home?
One option that I have discussed with others recently is the possibility of converting meeting rooms into self-contained studio rooms for use by employees – principally graduates – as temporary, free crash pads for short periods.
Let’s be clear: this isn’t a backdoor way of keeping employees in the office and making them work more, it’s a possible stop-gap solution to give younger or relocating employees an opportunity to find their feet in a new city before they commit to an expensive rental agreement (or purchase). It’s also not without its issues – where to store belongings and the lack of physical and mental distance between work and free time are just two – but it could be a way to give could give valuable breathing space to those who might otherwise not have any. Most of us looked to our university to provide living space in our first year, why not our first employer?
It’s a long way off becoming a reality, as fit-out and building design will need to adapt, but in a world where the distinction between office and café or office and hotel has begun to blur in the form of blended spaces, utilising office facilities in different ways is not inconceivable. Particularly if this is envisaged at the design stage and such uses can be fully incorporated into the office layout.
Steve Lang is a director in Savills commercial research team.
Most offices are left empty overnight, but is there a way to put these spaces to productive use, even as the main workforce is elsewhere. Steve Lang is a director in Savills commercial research team, and he has an answer.