A recent Business Day Dialogues LIVE discussion focused on what the future holds for the South African office.
In response to lockdown restrictions imposed in 2020 many organisations moved their staff to work from home. Even as restrictions have eased, some companies have opted to move permanently to remote working, while others have opted for a hybrid model between working from home and time in the office. In some quarters there is a reticence to returning to the office full time.
Clinical psychologist and the chair of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), Dr Colinde Linde said most people soon started to miss human connections during the hard lockdown. Enforced social isolation has resulted in a mental health pandemic.
Working from home suits some people, she pointed out, while others prefer an office environment or a hybrid arrangement. The challenge, she said, is not everybody has the luxury of a dedicated space to work at home where they will be uninterrupted.
Irrespective of where people choose to work, work-life balance will always be a challenge, she said.
Rob Kane, CEO of Boxwood Property Fund, and a board member of the South African Property Owners Association (SAPOA), said declining demand for office space has had a devastating impact on certain commercial property sector nodes, including Sandton and the Cape Town CBD. However, this was a trend that was clear even before Covid and was merely exacerbated by the pandemic.
However, he believed the work from home honeymoon is over as more employees return to the office. Although the expectation is that the office market will shrink by around 20%, he said evidence shows that office spaces will continue to exist. However, they will become less sterile and warmer environments than in the past.
Linda Trim is a director at Giant Leap, a company that helps companies get the best out of their people by creating award-winning workspaces. Innovation, creativity, and speed to market are all harder to achieve when staff are working remotely, she said.
According to research conducted by Giant Leap, more than 80% of employees want to get back into the office. However, she stressed that there is no one size fits all solution and that organisations need to find a middle ground that suits them. The future office, she predicted, will offer greater flexibility and less rigidity. Workspaces need to become spaces where people want to be, offering great coffee, ergonomic furniture, enticing meeting spaces, and state-of-the-art technology.
Professor Francois Viruly, associate professor at the University of Cape Town and a non-executive director of the Accelerate Property Fund, said the danger of looking at global trends where people are returning to the office more rapidly than locally, is that you lose the local context. He agreed that working from home suited some more than others but was less than ideal for first-time workers who had not had the opportunity to notice workplace culture or to receive the necessary support.
What the pandemic has shown us, he said, is a trailer of the future and what is possible. However, in transitioning through these possibilities, there are uncertainties as we adapt to a new environment and a new normal.