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The coronavirus pandemic has abruptly changed businesses’ attitudes towards office working, as well as their requirements from commercial real estate.

Since March, the UK government has urged employees to work from home where possible. According to the Office for National Statistics, by mid-April almost half (47%) of all people in employment were doing so – this compares to just 5% of the country’s workforce who reported working mainly from home in 2019.

Over the summer months, the government encouraged organisations to head back to their offices – with the spread of the virus seemingly under control, inner city businesses needed employees’ custom. However, this stance was short-lived, and as cases began to rise more steeply, in September the government reverted back to its earlier stance.

With social distancing measures likely to remain in place well into 2021, it has become apparent that businesses’ use of their workspaces has changed irrevocably. However, for technology companies, the need for a physical workspace will not disappear – from innovation and collaboration through to developing an organisational culture and accessing specialist infrastructure, remote working simply does not provide a viable, long-term solution for growth.

The question, then, is how to balance employees’ desires and health and safety best practice with the fundamental requirement to have a physical space to satisfy critical business functions.

What do employees want?

When establishing what the future of “the office” will look like for tech firms, and how that will be balanced against remote working, it is important to first understand what employees want. After all, many clearly enjoy the greater autonomy and flexibility that comes with working from home.

In August, Ipsos MORI conducted a poll among 386 UK adults who have been working from home full-time since March. It found that 34% felt their mental wellbeing was better, 37% said their job satisfaction was higher, and 54% stated their work-life balance was preferable. Other plus points included doing more exercise (38%), having a better diet (41%) and having more time for leisure activities or to spend with family (57%).

Tech businesses will need to be mindful of these findings, as well as the general desire among employees to continue remote working in the long-term. Indeed, a separate poll of 1,000 UK workers carried out in October found that almost a third would rather quit their job than forfeit the option to work from home on a permanent basis.

In order to retain employees, attract new ones, and generally support people’s evolving demands for flexible working, tech businesses must tread carefully when considering a transition back to office working.

The struggles with remote working

It would be misleading to suggest that the sudden shift to remote working has been a wholly positive experience. There are certainly large proportions of employees who have found the transition challenging or even unpleasant.

In fact, the same Ipsos MORI study showed that 40% of people find it challenging to work from home. A similar number (38%) do not have a suitable workspace in their home, while 36% miss interacting with colleagues.

There is also a pointed issue within the tech sector of the infrastructure available to employees. For example, the aforementioned survey showed that 28% of home workers have been hindered by poor internet connections, 27% lack the technology they need when not in the office, and the same number (27%) find it hard to collaborate with team members.

So abrupt was the mass migration from office to remote working as COVID-19 rapidly spread during the early months of the year, many businesses were caught off-guard. In turn, many employees have been left with improper workstations and without the equipment they require to do their jobs efficiently or comfortably.

With remote working likely to remain in place, at least on a part-time basis, in the future, investment into home workstations will be unavoidable. Indeed, the anonymous professional network Blind recently surveyed 3,200 people from tech companies – four in five (80%) said they thought the future of work will be a hybrid of remote and in-person working.

Tech businesses need specialist infrastructure

Tech businesses will need to remain in tune with the pains and preferences of their employees when handling the topic of on-site versus remote working. However, for virtually all tech firms, a physical workspace will remain essential.

First and foremost, this is because of the need for very specific, and often specialist, infrastructure. For one, super-fast, super resilient broadband is non-negotiable for most tech businesses – people working from home seldom have such connectivity.

Bruntwood SciTech, the UK’s leading property provider dedicated to the growth of the science and tech sector, has also witnessed increased demand for access to multi gig diverse connectivity, close proximity to data centres; it anticipates 5G and WiFi 6 to be expected as the norm in the not-too-distant future. Only commercial setups can offer such things.

Even right now, there is significant demand for 5G-enabled workspaces – these act as a reliable 5G testbed for businesses that are developing new technologies and applications based upon the arrival of the next generation of mobile connectivity. This is a subject discussed in more detail here: 5G and IoT: An in-depth review of how next gen mobile connectivity will unlock new opportunities.

Indeed, it is the need for robust digital infrastructure and support networks that underlines why a return to the office is so important to the majority of technology companies. Many firms will still require specialist facilities – such as labs, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance instruments, 3D printers, 5G testbeds, makerspaces, and so forth – that are only available in dedicated workspaces for tech and science organisations.

Innovation, collaboration and culture

Further to the infrastructure requirements of tech businesses, the other critical factor that will ensure a dedicated workspace is maintained is the way in which they innovate and collaborate. Simply put, having an entire workforce dispersed across their respective homes is not an effective means of innovating.

Tech firms – both little and large – are fuelled by innovation. Generating new ideas, new solutions to common problems, ways of doing things faster, easier or cheaper, and creating new possibilities for consumers and businesses; these things are at the heart of what they do. And to enable this, team members must be in close proximity, enabling them to have “micro-interactions” – that is to say, short and unplanned conversations, which can in turn lead to new inventions and innovations.

Indeed, a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) demonstrated that innovations are inextricably linked with the micro-interactions that occur in the workplace. It suggested that these interactions build trust and are essential to the collaboration needed to create new ideas.

The MIT professor Thomas Allen now has a communication theorem named after him: the Allen Curve, which is a graph demonstrating the exponential drop in frequency of communication between engineers as the distance between them increases. This was reflected in the earlier-cited Ipsos MORI study, in which employees noted that interaction and collaboration with colleagues had declined since they began working from home.

This issue is particularly pertinent among younger or newer members of staff. Interaction with managers and colleagues is essential to their professional development, helping them to learn new skills and better understand their own role. Telecommunication can bridge this gap to an extent, but again, the importance of micro-interactions and less formal, face-to-face discussions cannot be underestimated.

Of course, nurturing a company culture is also another significant challenge when staff are not in the office. The workplace is fundamentally where a culture is created and absorbed by employees – it is where values, ethics and management styles permeate through everything from furniture and posters to meeting conduct and social events. Without this, many employees can feel rudderless and see both their motivation as well as their general enthusiasm for working for the business diminish.

For many technology businesses, the desire to return to the office will no doubt be driven by the combination of requiring specialist tools and infrastructure, along with the need to have their employees working together in the same space to foster the right culture and facilitate innovation.

Bruntwood SciTech’s Managing Director, Tom Renn explains: “The workplace provides spaces for those physical interactions that one cannot get from behind a computer screen. The workplace is also where a company’s culture is created; where you onboard, train, develop and shape your people.

“Humans are social animals and we’ve seen the adverse impact prolonged periods of working from home can have on mental and physical wellbeing, and how quickly this can be countered by a return to the workplace, particularly those that also offer gyms, cafés and health and wellbeing initiatives.”

Flexibility, affordability, health and safety all top priorities

A return to their workspace seems certain for the majority of technology companies. And when deciding upon an appropriate workspace, it seems likely that flexibility and affordability will be vital considerations. Such is the level of uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, tech firms will require a workspace that can scale up or down in line with their own business activity.

Indeed, it is important to note that many technology businesses have actually experienced an uptick in demand as a result of COVID-19, which has seen the physical world give way to a plethora of digital products, services and experiences.

A study recently conducted by Bruntwood SciTech among 300 science and tech businesses from across the UK demonstrated the prevailing confidence within this sector – 87% said they were confident or very confident in the future of their business. Further, despite the expected increase in home working, almost half (47%) thought they would need larger premises next time they moved.

Of course, all workspaces will also need to undergo thorough health and safety assessments as staff return. For instance, in September, a study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) among 1,046 UK employees found that while the vast majority of those who had returned to the office were satisfied with the health and safety measures that were in place, 21% were not. Businesses must strive to ensure that number is zero.

Ultimately, even as society adapts to the “new normal”, it seems clear that the majority of tech businesses will return to a physical workspace when it is safe to do so. COVID-19 has not eradicated tech firms’ fundamental need for specialist infrastructure, nor their requirement for a collaborative space that can foster innovation and a positive company culture.

So, while some elements of office life might look a little different in the months to come, the long-term outlook for tech businesses is still one that revolves around the workspace.