Reports of the death of the office at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic have been greatly exaggerated, according to the Australian boss of one of the largest co-working space companies in the world.
Instead, the pandemic has accelerated the transformation of the workplace and its role, according to WeWork Australia general manager Balder Tol.
With much of the world’s workforce forced to work from home for significant periods of this year due to the ongoing pandemic, many have considered the worth of the office and whether a permanent base is needed in the future.
There have also been widespread concerns about the future of co-working spaces, especially before a vaccine for the virus becomes available.
But Tol is optimistic.
“For me, the office isn’t dead, it’s being transformed,” Tol told Information Age.
“I’m incredibly positive and optimistic about the longevity of space-as-a-service models and that COVID is accelerating a number of trends we’ve seen in the past.”
WeWork operates by renting buildings around the world long-term, fitting them out as tech co-working spaces and then leasing them out short-term to companies and freelancers.
In Australia, it currently has offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth.
For Tol, workers around the world have missed the direct communication and collaboration that comes with being in a shared space.
“We’re starting to see some of the pros and cons out of that forced switch, and we’re anticipating what our members want from us as a space-as-a-service organisation,” he said.
“I hear a lot of messages about the office being dead and that we’re all going to work from home.
"I’m very positive that the office will continue to play a key role in building an organisation’s innovation and cultural values.”
WeWork Australia boss, Balder Tol. Photo: Supplied
In the short-term, co-working spaces have adapted their safety precautions to ensure they are doing everything possible to be a safe environment during the pandemic.
They are also looking to be flexible and tailor their offerings to support a broad range of customers, including larger companies that may be looking to down-scale their office.
“Coming out of the crisis, and during the crisis, flexibility has become the most valuable currency as companies around the world are starting to rethink their workplace needs,” Tol said.
“We’ve had flexibility in our business model since day dot, so it’s very easy to reconfigure spaces based on current need. The ‘nine-to-five-be-at-your-desk model’ is dead - it’s a fascinating time to rethink what the role of the office is.
“Co-working spaces are leading the charge here and have been doing so for a number of years. We’re at the forefront of how we look at the role that an office plays.”
Apart from Victoria, which remains under strict lockdown rules, Australians are starting to return to their offices, Tol said, with WeWork locations in Brisbane and Perth back to pre-COVID occupancy rates, and Sydney at about 20 percent capacity and steadily increasing.
Offices in the future will be better tailored to the needs of employees and to stimulate the interactions that can’t take place via video chats and communication tools, Tol said.
“Because companies are hypothesising about real estate needs and predicting future footprint, where we see the majority of conversations leading is that the real estate strategy should complement the people strategy,” he said.
“That’s where the majority of the focus lies right now – what do our employees want and where do they want to work? This agility and adaptability is why co-working is surprisingly well-suited to this moment of change.
“Although the future of work is going to look different, humans continue to seek ways to interact and grow, and businesses need to continue to provide the right infrastructure for these ways of working.”
WeWork’s global business has experienced an extremely turbulent and controversial year, which saw its plans to go public nixed, its founder departing the company and a troubled rescue attempt by its primary investor.
But Tol said the business in Australia is going strong and is in-demand.
“Australia has been a demand-led expansion since the start,” he said. “Demand-led growth has proven to be a great strategy – those underlying principles for Australia and WeWork in the market are incredibly important.
“2020 will remain a very challenging year for everyone.
“We see great signs of optimism for 2021 across all segments in the business, with increased focus on enterprise organisations.”