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Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on society and economy, but offices will remain at the core of working life

Chris McCracken


Chris McCracken, Managing Director, Linen Quarter Business Improvement District

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Belfast's Linen Quarter includes many office blocks

Belfast's Linen Quarter includes many office blocks

Belfast's Linen Quarter includes many office blocks

Covid 19 has had a devastating impact on our society and economy, but it has also accelerated a debate about the future of work. According to the Office for National Statistics, 82% of UK businesses have continued to trade during lockdown, with millions of employees successfully working from home. The transition has been more effective than many thought possible with staff welcoming the greater flexibility, and employers starting to eye-up savings to the bottom line.

This new concept appears to be percolating at local level, with large organisations planning to retain significant levels of home working. By September it is estimated that large employers in Belfast will only have between 30%-50% of workers back in an office environment.

If this represents a long-term change it could have a dramatic impact, as new offices have been the strongest driver for city centre regeneration over the last 5 years. The 2020 Deloitte Crane Survey indicated that Belfast had its best year yet, with 1 million sq foot currently under construction and a similar amount in the pipeline. And the thousands of people these offices accommodate directly contribute to the vitality of local retail and hospitality. At the very point Belfast had turned the corner from the financial crisis will it now spiral back into decline?

Yet organisational effectiveness isn't just derived from functional transactions on mobile technology. It requires a social architecture too, and that is best served via a real-world physical office.

Quite simply we are born to interact with each other and to closely engage. It is no coincidence that looking someone in the eye is associated with trustworthiness and co-operation.

The development of trust reduces friction in and across organisations and lowers the transaction cost of getting business done. And while this can continue via home working, employers should be aware that they are often drawing from a store of social capital that has accumulated from the office.

Take, for example, the new employee. The most effective form of mentoring is through face to face interaction, while the least effective is watching screens.

What future are they being offered if they cannot properly meet and interact with colleagues?

How will the culture of the organisation - the habits, beliefs, narratives, symbols and works of art - properly develop without social interaction?

How will institutional knowledge - which owes as much to kitchen conversations as management memos - progress in a virtual environment?

But while the physical office should remain an essential anchor for organisations, it is also true that the architecture must evolve. The workplace that crams employees together on banks of tightly packed desks, was always an aberration.

The original idea of the open planned office, proposed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, was light-filled creative spaces that encouraged interaction. Employers should be making space for focused teams, with appropriate boundaries between each group, along with shared space for staff to mingle. The emphasis should be on higher quality, improved configuration, more sustainable buildings, and enhanced health with greater use of technology - from no touch lifts to improved filtration.

And yes, greater use of home working and more flexible workplaces have a part to play, but with the office anchored at the core of working life.

The environment will evolve but for thriving and progressive companies the office will retain its role as the hub of social interaction, cross cutting knowledge, and competitive advantage.

Belfast Telegraph