Office space of the future: Flexible and tech-driven

The Covid-19 pandemic has blitzed the traditional office as we knew it. As the dust begins to settle, adaptability and an ever-increasing reliance on proptech will be the defining features of workspaces for the years to come.

Rigid, pre-pandemic office setups are a thing of the past.

That was one of the key takeaways from this year’s edition of MIPIM, the world’s largest property fair, held in Cannes, France, from March 15-18.

However, most of the property experts from the Central and Eastern Europe region that we spoke with stressed that in the long run, remote work cannot fully substitute office-based operations. According to Artur Majsterek, advisory board member of Łódź-based A&A Holding, Polish companies for example now appreciate offices more than they did before the pandemic.

“Companies build their culture and team spirit in offices,” Majsterek told Emerging Europe in Cannes. “Zoom may be ultra-effective for holding meetings, but there’s no personal feel to it.”

Nicklas Lindberg, CEO of Echo Investment, Poland’s largest property developer, said that home offices can only be useful for a limited time.

“To be honest, working remotely doesn’t really work. You need to have some personal interaction,” Lindberg said, but also added that many companies may find it hard to convince their employees to return.

“You need to attract your employees with something more now. New offices will benefit from this, but old-style offices will struggle to get people back.”

Flexible solutions

Ursel Velve, CEO of Estonia’s Mainor Ülemiste, believes the answer to this conundrum lies in a simple trick.

“Since no one likes traditional, box-type offices anymore, offices need to be developed in a way so that they are similar to homes,” Velve said. “In Estonia, companies are now wondering how they can transform their offices into home-like environments with kitchen areas and living rooms.”

For many development companies in the CEE region, the greatest takeaway from the pandemic is that they need to be able to quickly adapt their spaces to changing circumstances.

“Nobody knows what the future will bring, and so we design offices to be as flexible as possible,” said Christoph Salzer, vice-president at Warimpex, a Vienna-based company with a strong presence in Poland. “If you create Google-type workspace, you can adapt it easily when the situation suddenly changes.”

Also tapping into the trend of increased flexibility are companies offering co-working spaces, with many such businesses now seeing much greater demand for their services. According to Maria Kaźmierczak, head of relationship management at Warsaw’s ShareSpace, the pandemic has only accelerated the development of the co-working market.

“Companies are looking for extra flexibility in these times,” Kaźmierczak told Emerging Europe. “Unlike traditional rental agreements, which are typically signed for a few years, co-working offers leave plenty of room for all sorts of adjustments even in the course of a contract.”

Smart ideas

Other than learning to adjust their strategies on the fly, property development companies have been searching high and low for the smartest design solutions that would best address pandemic-related challenges.

“It’s not necessarily forcing people not to do something, which I think is a bad way of going about this,” said Lukas Geležauskas, a developer at SBA Urban, a real estate company from Vilnius. “Rather, the process should be about leveraging both modern technologies and some that have been out there for ages to create the best health and safety standards for your tenants.”

Kadi Metsmaa, CEO of Esplan from Tallinn, told us that Estonian developers have shifted their attention to the invisible things like ventilation and lighting controls – or “everything that you only notice when it’s bad”, as Metsmaa phrased it.

“We implemented double ventilation systems even before the pandemic as we know that people work better when they are provided with more oxygen. This has proven very useful in the times of Covid,” Metsmaa said. “The convenience-driven solution with no switches in the office has also been very Covid-proof, with fewer touching points in the building.”

Proptech on the rise

The Covid-induced revolution in working habits has also led to a sea change in terms of how home office is now perceived.

“Even in the public sector people have been working almost 100 per cent from home,” observed Rolands Bogdanovs, managing director of Riga’s Investment and Tourism Agency. “Now there are no mental hurdles for people to work from home, whereas in the past managers in the public sector had the perception that if you’re working from home, you’re not actually working.”

Jacek Ratajczak, CEO of Zonifero, said that the recent meteoric rise in the popularity of hotdesking is a result of these changing attitudes.

“It turns out that what was unthinkable yesterday is a great opportunity today. If we don’t need everyone in the office every day, then perhaps our office can be smaller or designed in a novel way,” Ratajczak told us in Cannes.

Along such lines, Zonifero is an app which allows users to manage their entire office within just a single interface. Other than hot desks, Zonifero can manage office amenities such as intelligent parcel lockers and flipcharts, or electric vehicles and their chargers.

“We can also allow systems to join in from the outside, for instance to deliver food to tenants,” Ratajczak explained. “That way, the building is no longer connected – it’s connectable.”

“Our company motto is Frictionless workplace. We assume that you just want to focus on your work, and so our job is to do away with everything that could distract you from this.”

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