Next time you turn up at your favourite café do not be surprised if it’s filled with desks, workers and not a barista or bacon and egg roll in sight. It is simply one of the latest COVID-driven trends appearing as the pandemic continues to transform our “new normal” working lives.

Nick Moloney, sales director at Raine & Horne Commercial North Sydney says office space has ample longevity thanks to trends like the above which are resulting in workplaces being “reimagined” to meet new social distancing and health and safety expectations.

One of the biggest problems facing bosses and building managers has been implementing social distancing measures given the larger numbers of workers needing to use lifts and elevators in major office towers. In the past, up to 25 people could crowd into lifts. These days social distancing laws can allow just two people at a time.

As a result commercial agents are seeing an influx of inquiry from businesses seeking street-level properties such as those spaces taken up by CBD food and beverage outlets. However, now that many have shut up shop, unable to survive lengthy lockdowns without a lifeblood stream of city workers, their premises are up for lease and viola - your cafe is now an office.

Reimagining spaces

Raine & Horne Commercial North Sydney is one of those offices fielding such inquiries. “While office space is significantly cheaper per square metre than retail, the transformation will help landlords attract suitable tenants longer term than if they were to persist with a food and beverage configuration,” Mr Moloney said.

“Thanks to online sales, retail property values were already under pressure and COVID-19 has merely fast-tracked the shift of some properties to commercial spaces.”

North Sydney is one of the city’s major non-CBD commercial hubs, and many of its larger office blocks are experiencing logjams of several hours as workers try to access their offices. “This situation is just not manageable for many businesses especially smaller SMEs,” Mr Moloney said. “But if there are commercial spaces with easy access such as former retail shops at street-level, elevator bottlenecks can be eliminated.”

So what does it mean for commercial tower space? “Quality A and B grade office space in multi-level buildings will still be required by businesses as long as there is enough room to accommodate social distancing on one person for every 15 to 20 square metres,” Mr Moloney said. “It’s worth noting the 15 square metre spacing is in the context of fit out calculations for office space and is significantly wider than the four-square metres per person standard which is being suggested by the government at present. While firms won’t have to supply workers with Maxwell Smart-style cones of safety they will have to provide workstation dividers. That said, larger spaces between staff remains a more critical issue than the provision of working pods.”

Another factor pointing toward the longevity of office space is research showing working from home has not been as great a success as widely claimed. Roy Morgan research found that 4.3 million people or 32 per cent of Australians worked from home (WFH) during the pandemic. While many of us truly enjoyed the experience, just over half of those who did WFH ‘found it difficult to switch off from work’ among other problems. “Then there are other considerations that aren’t easily addressed if workers stay at home such as efficiency, productivity, and mental health,” Mr Moloney said. “Also there’s a school of thought that WFH has succeeded only because the majority of employees have viewed it as a temporary gimmick rather than as a permanent solution.”

Meeting face-to-face

As a result Mr Moloney said he has seen businesses choose to maintain their current commercial locations using rostering systems to reduce the numbers of people in an office at any one time. This way situations where, say, up to 60 staff are trying to reach Level 10 by 8.30am, are eliminated.

“It might be that some staff are expected in an office on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, while another member is at work on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday,” he said. “The fact is that plenty of business will still need to be achieved face-to-face in meeting rooms, board rooms and around water coolers.”

This is especially true across numerous industries that thrive via collaboration. In a recent interview about practical changes to facilitate returning to the office with the Property Funds Association, the managing director of leading firm i2C Architects Anthony Merlin said while WFH and collaborating across the firm’s offices nationwide via technology had made the company feel “smaller and more connected” the physical workplace was still imperative for fostering creativity.

“We’re architects and it’s a very creative industry so we have to very much think about the way in which we’re going to collaborate especially in those early stages of a project which is one of those areas that depends on creative input,” Mr Merlin said. “So we’re looking at a move back to more collaborative spaces within the businesses and less work stations.”