Why flexible working might not reduce the office footprint

Author: Peter Rose

Hands up who wasn’t working remotely this time a year ago? According to Roy Morgan research, up to a third of working Australians were hard at it on the laptop at home, at the height of the COVID crisis.


For most businesses it was a stop gap measure to enable business continuity. Just how well it worked, for employer and employees alike, came as a welcome surprise.


For those with skin in the office based working game – construction companies, CBD commercial and retail landlords et al – the news that many large enterprises planned to persist with their flexible arrangements, even after the crisis had passed, was far from welcome.


It’s not hard to see why. Fewer onsite workers means less office space required.  Cue a brace of tenants looking to boost their bottom lines by downsizing the corporate headquarters once their leases expire.


Except that might not be how it pans out. Rather than saving big bucks, flexible working may end up costing companies more than the traditional, 9-5 in the office model.


Research shows the majority of employees don’t want to work remotely all of the time. Given the choice, they’ll opt for at least three days in the office with their colleagues and the balance at home, getting stuck into tasks that are done quickest solo.

Letting individuals choose for themselves when they’ll come in may work for workers but it’s not necessarily great for businesses. It makes it harder for colleagues to connect in the flesh – lots of diary checking and horse trading over what days suit who – and, if they don’t, the organisation misses out on the benefit of face to face collaboration.


Mandated office days are the logical solution but that model requires maintaining a desk for everyone, even if it’s only in use for a couple of days a week.


The upshot? Less wear and tear for landlords but no rental savings for tenants, given their space requirements will remain exactly the same.


In fact, plenty of businesses may find themselves shelling out extra, given employees have come to expect that, if they’re working from home, their employer should help to defray their overheads. Springing for ergonomic office furniture and secure mobile devices, and chipping in on electricity and internet access for an entire team can add up – to more than companies were spending pre the remote working revolution.


Bottom line? Flexible working is likely to remain a thing, given the events of the past year have demonstrated how well it can work. But it’s unlikely to deliver the savings many enterprises were anticipating, nor the body blow many commercial landlords were dreading. At Forbury, we’ll be watching with interest to see how it shakes down, in 2021 and beyond.

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