People want to come back to the office but the days of 'Desk Factories' are gone

14 April 2021

Author: Dawson McConkey
Practice Area: COVID-19 , Real Estate


Depending on what day you click on the news, you’ll find any number of articles saying either that the office is dead because people have proven how easy it is to work at home, or that lots of us can’t wait to get back into our workplaces because the sense of isolation from working at home is taking its toll on our mental and physical wellbeing.

Google made headlines last week when it brought forward its timetable of moving people back into the office and saying that unless they live more than a commute away, employees would have to apply to work from home for more than 14 days – a policy at odds with other Silicon Valley firms like Twitter, who have said some employees can work at home forever.

I dare say if you asked people what they want from the future of work, there would be a split of those for whom flexible home working has suited them perfectly and others who are bouncing off the walls waiting for lockdown to end.

I have wondered over the course of the last year if we’re really all working from home or if we’re actually living at work. Personally, I’ll be glad to get back to working alongside colleagues and clients, rather than speaking to them on a screen. It is beyond doubt that flexible arrangements that allow working from home are part of the future, but I don’t believe that working from home all of the time is the whole of the future.

The future of work was the topic of the first in Carson McDowell’s series of events with Belfast Chamber on the theme of Re-energising Belfast, where we heard from three excellent speakers. The first was Michael Keimig from Rapid 7 who have just finished kitting out Chichester House in Belfast ready for staff to go into when it’s safe.

Having acted for Rapid 7 in their letting, I was lucky enough to have a sneak peak at Chichester House before the current lockdown started and, if we all had offices like theirs, I’ve no doubt we’d all be rushing back to the city centre. Michael told the audience that the intention is to “wow” anyone from the moment they enter the lobby and with features such as a bar, gym, café, games floor, library, Lego walls, training rooms, collaboration spaces and multiple different types of places to work, it more than achieves that. He said there is “intent in everything we have done with the space” and described it as the “physical embodiment of Rapid 7’s culture” which is designed to make people excited to come to work in.

While not everyone can have offices of the same spec as Rapid 7, in this new world there is an onus on making workplaces attractive and engaging, to drawing people in and making employees feel they can do and learn more when they physically go into their offices.

Talking about how Titanic Quarter’s new office development Olympic House is designed with this in mind, TQ’s commercial director James Eyre told our event “the days of offices being desk factories are over”. As well as designing more collaborative and flexible space into offices, he noted that employers are increasingly placing importance on the life part of work-life balance when choosing a workspace – things like easy access to amenities to meet friends for a coffee or to be able to walk or cycle to work – because ultimately it’s good for health, creativity and productivity.

That focus on wellbeing was also highlighted by our other speaker Clare Kelly, director of flexible working provider Glandore. Clare noted that, a year on, the novelty of working from home has worn off for many of us, particularly those who don’t have the luxury of a dedicated workspace at home. “We might all be in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat,” Claire commented, noting that the combination of hunching over a laptop in a spare room, juggling home schooling, Zoom fatigue and a desire for some face-to-face interaction with colleagues has contributed to an increase in enquiries for flexible workspace.

Clearly, as a real estate lawyer, I have a vested interest in seeing people using offices again. The pandemic has highlighted what needed to change to make offices appealing and shown that flexible working is a lot more possible than many of us believed. However, I think we’ll see more local employers follow Google’s lead, because a culture is really hard to foster when people are apart from each other. Learning on the job and mentoring junior staff is challenging to do remotely. Fully engaging with your place of work is hard to do unless you’re physically part of it, at least for some of the time. We are wired to be social creatures and, for that reason, I think offices will continue to be an essential part of the future of work.