ULI MEMBER–ONLY CONTENT: In an Oxford-style debate, two property experts locked horns virtually during the 2021 ULI Virtual Europe Conference in February on one of the most talked-about subjects of the past year—the future of the white-collar workplace. Once the pandemic has passed, will most office workers return to business as usual, working five days a week in proximity to colleagues? Or has the world changed forever, with most people working from home for at least a couple of days a week?
Duncan Swinhoe, regional managing principal at Gensler and session moderator, set the scene. “There are now swathes of office buildings across Europe that are empty,” he said. “Whilst businesses are successfully adapting and working remotely from home, has this pandemic spelled high noon for our office buildings? I’d like to introduce the motion: this house believes office buildings have a strong future.”
The motion was put to the audience before the debate, and about 85 percent agreed. That gave the first speaker, Nathalie Charles, deputy chief executive officer and global head of investment management at BNP Paribas REIM in Paris, what Swinhoe called perhaps a head start.
Charles acknowledged as much before launching into her reasoning. “I think it’s about people,” she said. “We are all trying to have interactions with other people. We like that on a personal basis, but we also like that on a professional basis because it helps us to develop ideas, to be innovative, and definitely the office is a strong part of that. Despite the fact that I’m so happy to be with you from Paris, I’m so frustrated not to be with you in London in the same place.”
To illustrate her point, Charles said that though it is useful, videoconferencing cannot replace the sensory experience of being in a room with colleagues and clients. “It’s about the five senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch,” she said. “Today, you can see half of me on the screen; hopefully, you can hear me 100 percent. But you don’t know if I put on some perfume this morning when I was preparing for this debate. You cannot touch me, we cannot shake hands, you cannot hug me. And, of course, we cannot share a meal or taste the flavor of coffee or tea.”
But Charles went further. It is not just a matter of being in the office with other people; it involves not traveling to and from the office and being surrounded by people. “I would like to highlight something that has been depicted as a huge constraint in the past, which is the movement of going from home to work,” she said.
“Now that we don’t have that anymore, I think we miss it because movement means being energized; it means going back and forth. It means also having a separation between the time for our personal life and the time for a professional life, and we miss the separation. And we miss walking in the streets or cycling, or for some of us driving. But also is it possible that we miss the Tube? Yes, I think it is possible. Not moving makes us static—not only physically but I’m afraid somehow intellectually.”
Chris Kane, founder of Six-Ideas, followed, opening his remarks by saying he was not going to refute everything Charles said or argue that offices have been rendered redundant by the pandemic. “The office is not dead. But if office buildings are to have a strong future, they’re going to have to be very different,” he said.
“I would argue that the system underpinning the provision and consumption of offices needs a massive overhaul. We need to come to terms, all of us as human beings, with a massive paradigm shift that we’ve all been experiencing over the last year and that will continue into the next few years. We’re not entering into the next industrial age, ladies and gentlemen, but I believe we’re into entering into the age of distributed workforces working in a multidimension manner and supported by distributed workplaces.”
Kane argued that the pandemic has proved beyond doubt that the vast majority of office workers can work from any place and at any time. “I want to persuade you that offices will not have much of a future unless you change the way space is provided, operated, and priced, because externally, there’s massive systemic change going on. COVID-19 has not only changed a lot of our lives and caused a lot of suffering, but it’s poured rocket fuel on the smoldering flames of change.”
The debate in wider society thus far has been misleading, Kane argued. “Many people talk about a new normal and liken this to the global financial crisis,” he said. “I think that not only has the game changed, I think that COVID-19 has changed the entire stadium. You have a big dilemma facing you as investors in real estate. Do you presume everything goes back to normal in 2022 to 2023? Or do you need to think differently?”
Not surprisingly, Kane urged the latter. “The lockdown and the viability of work from home has changed tenant expectations forever. Then you add in well-being and the experience agenda, and you’re seeing a massive shift from fixed to fluid. This cannot simply be satisfied by the current offer. Tenants and customers are demanding more choice than ever before. The current landlord-and-tenant operating system is cumbersome and unwieldy. You need to adapt your thinking to the emerging new reality of ubiquitous choice. You need to reimagine offices.”
Kane’s arguments were passionately held, though not persuasive enough for an audience of professionals in the built environment. When the motion was put to the audience again at the end of the debate, Kane had more than doubled his share to 33 percent—impressive, but nowhere near eclipsing Charles’s 67 percent. The vote in favor of office buildings having a strong future remained a landslide.