What will the post-pandemic office look like? Working from home, Fiona Galea Debono explores the unsettled workplace.
Companies are downsizing their workplaces as pandemic-provoked remote working takes root. But while the demand for office space was virtually dead last year, some also expect it to bounce back when working from home loses its allure.
According to HR consultant Mikela Fenech Pace, business leaders are asking themselves: Do we need all this space? Does our business require all staff to be back in the office?
It is too early to say what the post-pandemic office will settle on, she says, because the COVID-19 situation is still too fluid. But it is a time for reflection and a good place to start is by asking staff.
Meanwhile, a Central Bank study into teleworking has found that, after the pandemic, one in four jobs can be done from home – over double those who worked remotely before COVID-19.
But capitalising on Malta’s significant teleworking potential would require a shift in cultural and organisational practices, the study said.
Deloitte Malta’s offices have been almost 90 per cent unutilised over the last year. But the options of subletting and conversion are only being considered as part of broader decisions on remote-working policies and reconfiguration of space. These issues are being studied but no decisions are expected until later in the year.
While remote work is likely to become permanent for 25 to 35 per cent of its 450 staff, space requirements are not expected to decrease proportionately, said Deloitte’s financial advisory leader Raphael Aloisio.
The current footprint will, however, be reconfigured to cater for the new workplace realities.
“Although a slowdown in demand for office space is expected, the impact would not be as significant as in other countries, where commuting times are different,” he said.
Instead, ‘good’ employers may try to find ways to adapt underutilised space to enhance employees’ and customers’ overall experience, he suggested.
Downsize to upgrade
Completing a €50 million green office campus in a global pandemic is no mean feat, admits Charles Xuereb, CEO of Trident Estates plc, whose landmark project will be unveiled later this year.
The challenges of Trident Park in Mrieħel’s Central Business District – the redevelopment of an iconic industrial heritage building that aims to redefine office lifestyle – include a shift in mentality and the trends for leased office space.
Xuereb said it was easy to be negative about the project’s positioning on the commercial real estate market when companies worldwide were reconsidering their office space and operational structure.
“They have understood that company growth does not necessarily translate into larger offices and that health and quality of life play a major role in recruitment, while technology allows for remote work, which is positive.”
The teleworking trend, accelerated by COVID-19, has made companies realise they can reduce their office square metres “drastically” while also upgrading their work environment, focusing on image, employee retention and well-being – and saving on lease rates, Xuereb said.
The increase in demand for small workplaces started pre-pandemic from a generational shift. Several start-ups and young professionals, working from home for years, wanted a space to interact with others.
As a “company man” himself, Xuereb believed detaching from others went against human nature, and the value of contact, even professionally, has been highlighted during the pandemic.
“Being in an environment where you still feel at home, have a sense of belonging, can bounce off ideas on the fly and be creative is what makes people wake up early and get to work,” he said.
The hybrid model, whereby employees work both remotely and at the office, is the most realistic set-up, according to Xuereb.
Trident’s opportunities, in fact, lie in this scenario and the shift towards smaller office spaces, with interested companies either wanting to downsize or upgrade – or both.
Ten months into the pandemic, Farsons is one company that has developed this hybrid solution, with remote working considered just as effective.
Requiring major shifts from both employees and management, Group HR manager Antoinette Caruana said the latter needed to trust their staff even more.
“If employees cannot be trusted to work remotely, then the organisation has either hired the wrong workers or management has a problem.”
If employees cannot be trusted to work remotely, then the organisation has either hired the wrong workers or management has a problem
On the other hand, for some employees, the blurring of home and work caused anxiety and others missed networking with colleagues, Caruana said.
The COVID vaccine signals light at the end of the tunnel. But the need for enhanced flexibility and to rethink ways of working are here to stay, she maintained.
Even if the world returns to normal, it has always been clear for BRND WGN partner Chris Knights that it would move to a hybrid approach.
The creative agency went remote-first from the onset and has since downsized its offices, quickly determining that working from home helped staff focus on the job and achieve work-life balance.
BRAND WGN even introduced a home-office set-up and monthly remote-working allowance for support.
Water-cooler chats have been replaced by bots prompting a catch-up over a virtual coffee to overcome the craving for human connection, which Knights feels is a result of not socialising with anyone rather than because staff are not reporting to the office.
Most of its employees are still working from home and Knights thinks it is going to be a while before everyone is comfortable enough to return.
Among the first future tenants at Farsons’ new business park, he said the timing was right for its new hybrid model and the need for a different space.
When employees return to the workplace “now and again”, it will have a smaller footprint, designed for pop-ins, client meetings and social interaction.
“If you want to collaborate, come to the office, work, go for lunch, work, go for a beer,” Knights said. “If you want to knuckle down, stay at home or lock yourself in a pod at work.”
A desk for a day
The transition into permanent remote first has also led to an 80 per cent reduction in the size of Blexr’s Sliema office – even as COVID-19 brought about staff growth.
Its smaller office, catering for maximum 25 employees down from enough space for 130, is being run as a hot desk, where staff can book a desk for a day.
None of the iGaming company’s 75 employees need a permanent place and general manager Ian Hills envisages no more than 15 together at the same time.
When Blexr’s two-year contract is up, it will even evaluate whether it needs that much space, Hills said, adding that office occupancy rates were falling and the pinch could be felt once more commercial contracts ended.
Thanks to remote first, the talent pool has opened – and the new reality of onboarding Blexrians involves posting a laptop and welcome pack to their homes!
Raketech’s remote-first experience is also leading to increased productivity, with employee engagement and retention on an “all-time high”, according to Martin Schillig, HR director at the iGaming performance marketing partner.
“I believe Malta could benefit economically and environmentally from embracing remote work. But we have not yet seen any concrete government action and no proper framework,” he said.
“The office is missed for non-work-related reasons – primarily its social aspect,” Schillig said, predicting more companies will realise the typical nine-to-five job is not for everyone.
If they want to attract and retain talent, they will revise their working methods, either switching to fully remote or offering flexibility through a hybrid model.
Schillig believes remote work is becoming a “perk” that more professionals are after, and the demand for the typical office building is on the decline.
He questioned how this would also affect the residential property market and urban planning locally: “Is it still worth living in central Malta if you do not have to go to the office, or do the northern and southern areas offer a higher quality of living?”
Real estate viewpoint
Real estate agents admit the demand for office space took a hit in 2020, with no mood for expanding and hardly any international business moving here.
But they believe the attraction of working from home will be lost before long and there is nothing like face-to-face meetings, especially once the COVID-19 crisis is over.
Frank Salt Real Estate director Grahame Salt questioned how long it would take before people got tired working in their PJs.
“In the long run, employers will want their staff at the office with their colleagues,” he maintained, highlighting that Malta did not have to contend with the long commutes to work.
Acknowledging a demand for smaller spaces, Salt believes these businesses are “jumping the gun” and may have to move again in the future.
The purpose-built office complex, a relatively new concept, remained attractive as businesses sought an improved environment, he said, singling out Mrieħel’s “state-of-the-art” Quad Business Towers and Trident Park.
Although the demand for office space had “gone quiet”, Remax Malta CEO Jeff Buttigieg said a 700-square-metre floor was recently rented to a company wanting more space so its employees would feel more comfortable.
Terraces and outdoor spaces were among the prerequisites, Buttigieg said, adding some properties were converting roofs into gardens.
He too believed going remote first would be a mistake because “work is also social”, saying gaming industry contacts were concerned about remote workers’ productivity levels and “losing out on teamwork”.
Work and play
At Betsson, in fact, while most employees are still working remotely, downsizing the office footprint is not on the cards, said Chief HR Officer Lena Nordin.
“Quite the opposite actually: in 2020, we expanded some business areas and started operations in new markets.”
Nordin believes the office still has a key role to play: “The needs may have shifted slightly, but it is still a focal point to meet colleagues, brainstorm, get creative and get to know one another on a level that is almost impossible via virtual meetings.”
In view of this – and the evolving concept of workplace – Betsson is currently renovating its Ta’ Xbiex HQ, revamping its reception and a whole floor to offer staff a space to relax, have fun, play games and socialise.
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